Three ways to improve Taiwan's direct democracy

Participants at a water festival in Taiwan earlier this week. Keystone / David Chang

The new conventional wisdom is that electoral democracy is in decline. But the assumption ignores a different global trend: direct democracy is booming, especially at local and regional levels of government.

This content was published on April 17, 2019 - 16:19
Joe Mathews & Bruno Kaufmann

Today, 113 of the world’s 117 democracies offer their citizens legally or constitutionally established rights to bring forward citizens’ initiatives, referenda or both.

And since 1980, about 80 percent of all countries have had at least one nationwide referendum or popular vote on a legislative or constitutional issue.

Of all the nationwide popular votes in recent history, more than half took place over the past 30 years. According to our research, almost 2,000 such votes have taken place in modern times: 1,075 in Europe, 193 in Africa, 187 in the Americas, 117 in Oceania and 201 in Asia.

We believe that Taiwan's adoption and expansion of nationwide direct democracy put the island's political system ahead of other major democracies, such as Germany, the US, and India, in terms of giving citizens a say about their future.

None of these other countries allow nationwide popular votes on substantive issues. But they, and other democracies, allow direct democracy at the local and regional levels. The number of local votes on issues has defied our attempts to count them — they run into the tens of thousands.

Now the challenge for Taiwan and other countries is to design practices and establish institutions that ensure that direct democracy enhances the public good, is not captured by special interests and expresses the results of careful deliberation among citizens.

We will be meeting activists, lawmakers, students and scholars of democracy at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Taichung in October to further discussions on how to protect direct democracy from abuse.

Here are our three proposals:

1. Make time and space a priority

Direct democracy requires much time and space for true deliberation — gathering of signatures, institutional debates after submitting an initiative, and the campaign ahead of a vote.

It helps neither the issues raised nor the quality of the debate if the process is fast-tracked as ahead of last year’s referendums in Taiwan. To slow things down, we recommend expanding the time allotted for signature gathering from six months to at least 18 months.

2. Separate votes on issues from the election of candidates

Voting directly on laws is a different process than voting for representatives, and the two should be separated so that people have more time to consider each.

Having a different schedule for direct democracy and representative democracy would also make the misuse of direct democratic processes on by parties or candidates less likely.

3. Eliminate or reduce the approval quorum

Turnout falls if votes on issues and the election of candidates are separated. That means that the approval quorum for referendum votes – currently set in Taiwan at 25 percent of eligible voters – should be eliminated or at least reduced to 10 percent so that opponents of ballot measures do not use boycott strategies to invalidate votes.

Improvement requires national recognition that direct democracy is here to stay and is likely to become an increasingly important feature of self-government in Taiwan, and elsewhere. Direct democracy is on the rise. We just need to make it work.

Joe Mathews and Bruno Kaufmann are co-presidents of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. This year’s Global Forum is to be held on Oct. 2 to 5 in Taichung. The 2020 forum will take place in Bern, Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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