The KMT has announced that it will support holding a referendum on whether to start operations at the 4th nuclear power plant (4NPP).
This is a stunning turn of events, at least to me. They are venturing onto treacherous ground. There are lots of ways this can go wrong for them, and only one way that it can turn out well.
Nuclear power divides along the traditional blue/green lines, though there have been defectors from both sides. I recall one budget fight in the late 1990s in which the KMT demanded party discipline from everyone except for legislators from Taipei County, who were allowed to vote with their constituency. Similarly, the DPP was not monolithically anti-nuclear either. The polarizing moment came early in Chen’s presidency when he stopped construction on 4NPP. Chen had won the presidency with 39%, and the DPP had roughly the same share of seats in the legislature. The newly emerging blue camp had a clear majority, and nuclear power was the test case to see if the president or the legislature would dominate the government for the rest of the term. Whatever deviance from party positions had previously existed was quickly overwhelmed by the partisan struggle for power. Eventually, the KMT won out and the DPP was forced to resume construction on 4NPP. If it wasn’t already clear, this episode indelibly branded the KMT and DPP as pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear parties.
The project has had a bumpy history, to put it mildly. There have been numerous cost overruns, safety problems, construction delays, and various other snafus. Of course, the site is near the Taipei metropolitan area, vulnerable to tsunamis, on an earthquake fault, and even sits atop a not-quite-dormant volcano. The fact that Taiwan has three other (much older) nuclear power plants (with not entirely pristine safety records) has done little to qualm fears about whether 4NPP will be safe. Fukushima sharpened all these concerns and forced Taiwanese to rethink whether nuclear power was a good idea.
During the 2012 presidential election, the KMT tried to take the nuclear issue off the table. It promised to decommission the three existing plants on schedule. 4NPP would be opened, but not until it had been rigorously tested. At the end of its scheduled life, Taiwan would be nuclear free. Somehow, these verbal gymnastics allowed Ma to claim that he was simultaneously for (a) opening a new nuclear power plant and (b) making Taiwan nuclear free. The DPP position was more straightforward. They would not open 4NPP, and they would hasten the decommissioning of the old plants. I think the KMT strategy largely worked. Nuclear power did not seem to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign.
I have not seen specific polling data on support for nuclear power, but it is my impression that public opinion is shifting, perhaps decisively, away from the KMT.
Why is the KMT so politically committed to nuclear power? Most importantly, they have committed enormous piles of money to this project over the past two decades. They cannot simply walk away with nothing to show for it. The DPP would beat over the head relentlessly for years and years. How many schools, hospitals, roads, public housing, MRT lines, or flower festivals were sacrificed for 4NPP? It would be strong evidence that the KMT had a flawed vision for the future and had stubbornly insisted on imposing that flawed vision on an unwilling population. The KMT has been attacking the DPP for a decade over the 2001 showdown. When the DPP stopped construction, they broke numerous contracts and had to pay heavy financial penalties. Of course, the project was then resumed, so that money was just wasted. However, if the plant never opens, this argument gets reversed: the DPP tried to save Taiwan an enormous amount of money, and the KMT wasted 10 more years of construction budgets. For the KMT, reversing course is simply not an option.
There are also other reasons the KMT wants nuclear power. One way to understand the KMT regime is as a construction state, much like the LDP’s Japan. The ruling party hands out lots of construction contracts and turns these contracts into political support. Some aspects are legal, some are hazy, and some are outright illegal. However, it is pretty effective. 4NPP has been a 20 year gravy train of contracts to hand out. (I hope I’m wrong about this. Contracts used for this purpose often lead to shoddy public works. This prospect terrifies me.) Many manufacturers support nuclear power. To be clear, they don’t care where the electricity comes from, but they can’t stomach the prospects of insufficient or unreliable power. Many of the exporters that drive Taiwan’s economy want 4NPP opened because they believe it will provide steady and reliable electricity for the next few decades. The KMT also listens closely to Taipower, the state run electricity company. Taipower is deeply embedded in the KMT’s power structure. The Economics Minister is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee. Taipower wants 4NPP. It can be pushed and prodded to reluctantly try out the odd alternative energy project, but 4NPP is Taipower’s crown jewel.
If the KMT is so deeply committed to nuclear power, how is it possible that they can accept a referendum? Admittedly, I didn’t think it was possible until they announced it. I fully expected that they would make a big show of safety tests, have a blue ribbon commission pronounce the plant safe, and use their majority in the legislature to push away any remaining obstacles. Apparently public opinion is shifting enough that they don’t feel this strategy is tenable. We have seen several prominent blue camp supporters ask the KMT to reconsider its stance. The one that struck me was the foundation associated with Fubon Financial Group. If even powerful people in Fubon, which is betting heavily on further integration into the Chinese market, are willing to speak out against nuclear power, anyone in the blue camp can. The pressure from within the blue camp coalition must be intense.
One thought is that the KMT is using the referendum as a mechanism to back away from nuclear power. If the public votes against 4NPP in the referendum, the KMT will have a rationale for changing its position. The public will be responsible for the economic consequences of the decision, not the KMT. I don’t think this is correct. (Or if it is, it is a terrible strategy.) If the public repudiates 4NPP, they will effectively be saying that the policy the KMT has been doggedly pursuing over the past 20 years was not just wrong, it was so wrong that voters are willing to stomach wasting billions of dollars to reverse it. Don’t think that voters will simply forgive the KMT for all that money. The KMT insisted on spending it. Just as a government reaps political benefits for doing things that turn out well, they are penalized for making poor choices. The KMT might hope it can foist off that responsibility onto the people, but one of the axioms of democratic politics is that the voters are never wrong. Someone has to take the blame if 4NPP never opens, and that someone will be the KMT.
Moreover, if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead. He will be politically neutered.
No, the KMT cannot lose this referendum. They have to win it. The only way this turns out well for them is if a clear majority of voters vote against not starting operations at 4NPP. This means that the KMT will have to fully engage the debate. President Ma will have to commit completely and publicly to this project; he won’t be able to prevaricate the way he did in the presidential campaign. The KMT will have to convince the electorate that nuclear power is safe, efficient, clean, reliable, and desirable.
Don’t assume that Ma will fail. His biggest advantage is that there is an information asymmetry. The government will have all the details about 4NPP and Taiwan’s electricity needs. When they need to know something, they can simply make a phone call. Opponents will have to satisfy themselves with publicly available data, which is far less thorough. Because of this, the KMT will usually have more convincing evidence for their arguments than the opposition will. They also have all the resources of the state at their disposal to publicize their arguments. In the ECFA debate, we saw lots of advertizing touting the advantages of ECFA. Every government press release was infused with a pro-ECFA message. Heck, even our electricity bills had a pro-ECFA message on them. Get ready for an even more intense campaign.
The anti-nuclear camp also has to worry about this turning into a straight blue/green fight. Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration is high, but there are a lot of people who will grit their teeth, curse bitterly, and vote for him rather than support the DPP. The anti-nuclear camp needs to make sure that blue camp supporters who are against nuclear power feel that nuclear power is not just a proxy for feelings about China. Given that the two big parties are clearly aligned against each other on this issue and will be leading their respective camps, that might be challenging.
This will be unlike any previous referendum. We really haven’t had true referendum yet. All prior cases were really just exercises in mobilizing voters in a general election campaign. The questions were always designed to be as uncontroversial as possible. “Do you favor a competent national defense?” “Should we have high economic growth?” “Are you against pedophilia?” (Ok, maybe those weren’t the exact questions…) This question will be designed to resolve a public policy issue, not to mobilize voters for a different election. While the government will phrase the question in as advantageous a way as possible, this question will inevitably split the electorate into two clear sides.
One thing opponents don’t need to worry about is turnout. In the past, one side mobilized and the other side boycotted. Since referenda need 50% turnout to become binding, all failed. The question will be phrased in the negative, something like “Do you favor not beginning operations at 4NPP?” so technically the KMT could ensure the failure of the referendum by boycotting.
However, the KMT needs to win politically, not legally. Consider if turnout is 40% and 90% of the votes are “yes” votes. What that demonstrates is that there are a lot of voters who are against nuclear power. It does not demonstrate that anyone actually supports it. If the KMT felt passive support were enough, they would have been better off just pushing 4NPP through the normal legislative process rather than asking for a referendum. The KMT needs active support. It needs more “no” votes than “yes” votes.
The DPP will lead the charge against nuclear power, and the KMT will have to lead the demands for nuclear power. With both sides fully mobilizing, turnout will not be so important. I expect that 50% will not be a problem, but even if turnout is only 48%, if one side wins by a clear margin, that will be decisive in the political battle. If the KMT wins, they will, of course, go forward. If they lose by a clear amount, the party will not be able to stomach flagrantly defying public opinion. (President Ma might, but the politicians who still have to fight future elections will not.)
I’m still stunned that the KMT has chosen this path. However, they have cast their lot, and we are in for an interesting spring and summer.