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Taiwan votes on 10 referendums this week. Here’s what you need to know.

- November 21, 2018
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivered a speech during National Day celebrations in October in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei. (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

Taiwanese voters will determine the outcome of 10 referendums Nov. 24 as well as local elections. This will not be the first time this autonomous island has held referendums, although none succeeded in the past.

This time, the story could be different. A recent change reduced the threshold requirement from 50 percent of eligible voters to just 25 percent in favor of the question — and a simple majority will suffice. And the new law decreased the referendum voting age from 20 to 18. This lower threshold suggests that it might be easier to pass referendums, impacting Taiwan’s domestic politics as well as its international relations.

Here are three things you need to know about these referendums:

1. Cross-partisan issues are on the rise

The public will make direct decisions on three major issues: same-sex marriage, the environment and a name change for Taiwan. Unlike in 2004 and 2008, civic organizations proposed most of these November referendums. Out of the 37 proposals since January, political parties put forward only five. Only 10 referendums collected enough signatures to get on the November ballot.

Civic organizations on opposite ends of the political spectrum have proposed conflicting referendums on marriage equality, with proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage found across parties. For example, the pro-Kuomintang (KMT) Happiness of the Next Generation has coalesced with the pro-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Presbyterian leaders — their referendum will determine whether Taiwan’s Civil Code should define marriage strictly as between a man and a woman. Equal Love Taiwan, another civic group, proposed a referendum that would let voters decide whether the Civil Code marriage regulations should guarantee the rights of same-sex couples to get married.

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The name “Chinese Taipei” has allowed Taiwan to participate in the Olympics and other international sports events. Under a referendum proposed by a civic group, teams instead would compete under the name “Taiwan.”

The active participation of civil society in the referendum process suggests that individuals look to express their preferences with a direct vote, rather than follow the lead of major political parties. The opposition KMT proposed two partisan referendums, aimed at repealing the DPP’s nuclear-free policy and other environmental issues related to energy.

2. The ruling DPP has been noncommittal

President Tsai Ing-wen has been particularly quiet on the referendums, a striking contrast to the left-leaning positions on progressive issues that helped her win the presidency in 2016. The ruling party even contradicted its own platform by prohibiting its members from rallying for the name change to “Taiwan.”

Tsai’s stance appears to be strategic. Her government has resisted approving same-sex marriage legislation, despite the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize same-sex unions in 2017. Tsai and the DPP’s non-stance appears calculated to secure votes from conservative older generations from rural areas — at the risk of losing young voters.

3. The DPP may be facing a rocky road

Urban youths are the primary advocates for same-sex marriage. According to a July survey conducted by the Marriage Equality Coalition, more than 80 percent of the population below 35 supported same-sex marriage, but only 30 percent of the over-45 group shared similar sentiments. Moreover, our analysis based on the distribution of signatures for referendums on same-sex marriage shows that these youths are concentrated in cities where Tsai had barely won in the 2016 elections.

Conversely, the DPP’s core constituency — rural voters in Southern Taiwan — seems indifferent about the legalization of same-sex unions. The different positions on marriage equality within the DPP means Tsai cannot please both camps and risks losing the support of young urban voters.

The KMT, meanwhile, is gaining younger and newer KMT members in both villages and cities, who are the leading mobilizers in reactivating coal-fired power plants. Our analysis suggests that the shift in youth support to the KMT may leave the DPP on a rocky road in this election.

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Independence supporters are the main force behind the name-change referendum. The DPP has discouraged its members’ participation in activities related to the name change, seeking to avoid angering status-quo supporters, as well as China and the United States. In an August poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 65 percent of respondents were in favor of the name change. The overwhelming support indicates that voters may express their frustrations with the DPP in the November midterm elections. A key indicator to watch is Kaohsiung City, Taiwan’s third-largest city, ruled by the DPP since 1998. The DPP mayoral candidate won 68 percent of the votes in 2014 — but recent polls suggest that the DPP may fare no better than Sen. Ted Cruz, who won a narrow victory in Texas.

What are the implications for Taiwan’s future?

According to the National Security Studies Surveys conducted by Duke University, 2017 was the first time in history when more than half of the Taiwanese population were not attached to any political party. The ongoing referendum debates suggest that the nonpartisan trend is likely to continue, which could be problematic for Taiwan’s democracy in the long run.

Here’s why: Political parties serve as an important platform for coordinating resources, votes and policies. Taiwan’s voters will consider pro/anti-same-sex marriage referendums and pro/anti-nuclear energy referendums. If opposing referendums pass, although unlikely, how could a democratic government implement the self-contradictory will of the people?

And the name-change referendum may have political consequences for Taiwan’s relations with China, as well as Taiwan’s status in the world. If Taiwan votes to compete under “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei,” China may pressure the International Olympic Committee to prohibit Taiwan from participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. China may also retaliate using even more severe tactics, such as putting pressure on Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies to terminate the recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation.

While voters may see the appeal of direct involvement in political decisions, referendums pose a dilemma for Tsai and her party. After Nov. 24, Tsai will confront the consequences of these referendums on Taiwan’s domestic political stability and its relations with China. More importantly, when it is possible that direct voting becomes a norm, look out for how Taiwan consolidates its democracy by avoiding “the tyranny of the majority” — the majority of an electorate placing its own interests above and at the expense of those in the minority.

Shan-Jan Sarah Liu is an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University in Britain. Follow her on Twitter @DrSarahLiu.

Austin Wang is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter @wearytolove.