Accessibility links

Breaking News

Taiwan's Push for Referendum to Coincide with Elections Spurs Controversy - 2004-03-19

The referendum pushed by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is at the root of much of the controversy surrounding Saturday's elections. The decision to hold the plebiscite raised tensions with China and provoked a bitter debate on the island.

President Chen Shui-bian angered China when he scheduled the referendum to be held Saturday, the same day as the presidential elections. The referendum is the first ever held in Taiwan.

Communist China regards democratic Taiwan, self-governed since 1949, as a renegade province and threatens to use force if the island's leadership moves toward formal independence.

President Chen won the authority to hold the referendum vote after heated debate in Taiwan's Parliament last year. Members of his Democratic Progressive Party say they pushed the measure to break a budget impasse in which Chen's opponents had blocked plans for millions of dollars in defense spending.

Under the law, a referendum can be held only when Taiwan is under threat of attack. Joseph Wu, deputy secretary-general to President Chen, says information that China has hundreds of missiles pointed at the island is sufficient threat.

"Look at the military deployment across the Taiwan Strait," said Mr. Wu. "They have more than 500 missiles targeting Taiwan right now. They are modernizing their army, and air force power and naval power, and they are geared specifically at Taiwan. I just cannot imagine that Taiwan is not facing a threat."

Debate over the measure grew when it provoked anger across the Taiwan Strait in China. Beijing officials labeled the referendum a maneuver by Mr. Chen. They alleged his real intention is to steer the island toward declaring formal independence and said the referendum pushes cross-strait relations to the "brink of danger."

Beijing has historically viewed elections on Taiwan as steps toward formal independence, and they say the referendum is another example.

The referendum asks voters two questions: the first is whether Taiwan should boost its missile defenses in the face of a threat from China. The second question asks whether Taiwan should negotiate with China to establish a peaceful framework for interaction.

Plans for the referendum shook a longstanding relationship between Taiwan and the United States. Washington, which has pledged to defend Taiwan against foreign attack, has been eager to avoid a confrontation between Taipei and China.

U.S. officials have questioned Chen Shui-bian's motives, saying referendums are usually only held on matters that are controversial or divisive.

In this case, many Taiwanese say they consider the threat from China to be real.

However, some of Mr. Chen's opponents, such as this Taipei resident, who identifies himself only as Mr. Hwang, say they consider the referendum as an unnecessary measure that needlessly provokes China. Mr. Hwang explains why he chooses not to vote on the referendum at all.

"The first question is nonsense because we have to buy weapons no matter what. If we say 'yes' or 'no' to talk to the mainland, it also does not matter. If mainland China says 'no' to talks, how do we talk to them?"

Opposition candidate Lien Chan of the Kuomintang party has called the referendum illegal and unnecessary. He and other party officials are boycotting the vote.

Yi Chenglai is director of foreign policy studies at the Taiwan Think Tank in Taipei. He says there is a pragmatic reason for the referendum, but he also believes that Chen Shui-bian saw he could gain politically in what polls have indicated is a very tight race.

"The political pressure kind of forces the opposition party to shift its position," said Mr. Yi. "That is one of the reasons why the issue has been put into this referendum. President Chen, of course wants himself re-elected."

President Bush has warned Taiwan and China not to take any unilateral steps that would change the status quo. Analysts say the warning from Washington prompted Taiwanese officials to dilute the questions on the referendum, which had earlier been expected to contain much stronger language.