Open letter from DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen: "Using Democracy To Protect Taiwan” is Our Only Choice

Open letter from DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen to Taiwan’s “citizen/masters:”

Using Democracy To Protect Taiwan” is Our Only Choice

June 15, 2009

We stand at the threshold of initiating a Taiwan referendum. We face a high wall, but we must be people who have the courage to climb this high wall. We must not lose heart.

We need to get more than 80,000 initial sponsors to petition for this referendum, then 800,000 to support its being a ballot measure; and finally 8 million to vote on it in order to have it pass. This is indeed the strictest, most constrained referendum system in the whole world, thanks to the KMT Legislative Yuan majority forcing such a product on us. The referendum we have was designed not to affirm the use of referenda but to block direct democracy.

So many people are asking: why is the Democratic Progressive Party launching this referendum petition? Is it so necessary to demand that the government put the signing of an ECFA to a decision by a referendum?

There are three reasons. First, no matter what the content of an ECFA might be, it will determine the economic integration of Taiwan and China and is bound to change the future fate of Taiwan. This will have a vital, critical impact on our people and our children. The power to decide something of this importance cannot be left solely in the hands of the president and a minority of the ruling class. Otherwise the public benefits of citizens will be transferred into the private gain of this ruling group.

Second, if we are successful in this referendum, it sets as a principle that any major future cross-strait agreement must undergo a citizens’ referendum and not simply be done by the government. Then the current “birdcage referendum” must be amended. The legal responsibility to call a referendum could be re-granted to the Executive Branch. Then, when the government wants to see a referendum pass, it would be willing to lower the high thresholds in the current referendum system. This would knock down this high wall we have now and allow citizens to have a more complete direct democracy.

Finally, the relationship of Taiwan and China is the source of the domestic political divisions. The best way to resolve these disputes is through a democratic mechanism. Each party has its own approach and there could be no better way than to let the people judge the parties and their approaches. If the ruling group really is interested in selling out Taiwan, then only a democratic mechanism can serve to guard Taiwan as a last line of defense. This is what the Democratic Progressive Party advocates by the principle of “Use Democracy to Protect Taiwan.”

The harsh reality is that it is extremely difficult to hurdle the high threshold for a referendum to pass. But if we give up and do not challenge this reality, with the exception of taking to the streets or a legislative struggle, what other tool do we have to check the power of this party-state-rolled-into-one-China-leaning president?

Referendum campaigns in Taiwan have not become a common political practice. In fact there is something of a stigma attached to them. However, this ECFA referendum has to be distinguished from past referenda. First of all this will be the first Taiwan referendum campaign that will seek to be a check on Executive Branch power. Facing the Ma Administration’s “lean-toward-China” policy, even though the DPP launched a full-scale parliamentary and street protest campaign we were not able to block the flow of Ma’s policy. So a referendum is the only choice we have left. This is almost mortal combat – to show the power of the people to a government which ignores public opinion.

Another difference is that in the past the referenda were initiated by the government about the government’s policy agenda. But this ECFA referendum agenda is 100% from the grassroots. Signing an ECFA has stirred the hearts of people about workers’ rights, about the very survival of small and medium sized enterprises and about the threat to our agricultural sector. This political agenda is a major source of controversy so the people are using the referendum to show that their choices are not the same as those of the government. Thus it gives this referendum a very unique democratic meaning and implication.

This is why, if we want this referendum to pass, we have to take a different approach than in the past.

Whether it is 1 million petitioners or 8 million voting, we will have to have people beyond the green-blue political lines participating. So it is necessary that this time the referendum campaign take the shape of a society-wide one. We are organizing 100,000 people to be a vanguard to get the petition drive started. Once the Referendum Commission has accepted the petition as valid, this vanguard of 100,000 will use their network with each one garnering 10 voters so that we can get over the second hurdle in having a referendum put to all the people.

If this one million strong force brings others out to vote on the referendum then we have a chance to hurdle the high wall of this birdcage referendum. This is a challenging task, even more daunting than getting 600,000 people out for our street demonstration of May 17th. However, faced with a president and ruling party that pays no attention to the people, we must rise up united and show our great strength.

I can imagine that President Ma who will soon have total control of the KMT party, the government and the military, will not welcome this referendum which challenges his cross-strait policy. There is no doubt that the KMT will again boycott this referendum even through the Referendum Review Committee under Executive Yuan. However, as a democratically elected president, why would President Ma do this? If President Ma's policy does meet people's interest, why is he afraid of a people's referendum on his policy? If President Ma can support a referendum on whether to allow setting the casino in Taiwan and even authorize that this referendum to be exempted from the threshold requirements, why does he insist that there is no need for referendum on policy, like ECFA, that has much greater and long-term impact on our country?

In fact, President Ma should welcome the referendum on an ECFA as backing for his negotiations with China. If referendum becomes mandatory for an ECFA, Taiwan negotiators can take more a more confident and firm position when fighting for Taiwan's best national interests instead of letting China have its way. Democracy is the most powerful weapon Taiwan has. If President Ma does not understand how to utilize this show of public opinion, than it indicates not that he lacks confidence in democracy but rather that he despises the true voice of the people.

I would like to invite every citizen/master of this country who has a heartfelt love of Taiwan to join our campaign. Faced with a roaring countercurrent of authoritarianism in our politics and economic overdependence on China, join us in this last line of democratic defense of our land, our Taiwan!