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Taiwan's Tsai faces hot summer votes over pork and nuclear power

Four referendums give China-friendly Kuomintang chance to claw back public support

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen faces referenda this summer on issues from the construction of a nuclear plant to imports of U.S. pork. (Source photos by AP, EPA/Jiji and Getty Images)

TAIPEI -- As Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen struggles with the island's COVID-19 outbreak, her government faces some tough battles with the opposition on four referendum votes this summer.

Taiwanese on Aug. 28 will vote whether to bring back a ban on U.S. pork imports, resume the building of a nuclear plant, construct a natural gas terminal and move future referendums so that they coincide with elections -- all supported by the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, or KMT. Tsai's ruling Democratic People's Party takes the opposite side of each issue.

While the issues might not stir up as much emotion as Taiwan's last referendum in 2018, when Christian groups mobilized against LGBT rights, they could deliver another blow to the DPP, which has been criticized for its handling of the current wave of COVID-19 transmissions.

Taiwan's largest opposition party, the once-paramount KMT, is both out of money and -- many critics say -- out of touch with many Taiwanese youths. But it might be able to pick up some support through the referendums.

"It seems like the four issues are separate but actually they are all supported by the main opposition [KMT]," said Fang-Yu Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Ministry of Science and Technology's Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. "And I think these four issues combined are a very big challenge to the ruling party."

While two-thirds of Taiwanese vote strictly along party lines -- supporting the DPP-led green camp or the KMT-led blue camp -- this time 40% of the vote is up for grabs, according to a survey by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University.

If the yes vote carries all four ballot items, Chen said, the results could trigger the resignation of Premier Su Tseng-chang. After the party lost key local elections in 2018, Tsai resigned as DPP party chair.

Su is known as a charismatic political heavyweight. He began to burnish his reputation decades ago. In 1979, he defended human rights activists who took part in the Kaohsiung Incident -- a pivotal event in Taiwan as the island, then under martial law, moved toward democracy. He was also one of the original co-founders of the DPP, in 1986.

A Su resignation could damage the DPP’s chances in the 2024 presidential election by weakening the party's connection to its power bases outside Taipei, Chen said.

"The premier has his shortfalls," Chen said. "He is too assertive. He does things very quickly and effectively. But the possible alternatives [to Su] do not have powerful links to the political factions inside the DPP. So the government will not function as effectively, especially in local politics.

"If they lose their connection to the local parties, it is very possible they will lose the general election later."

Lawmakers of the main opposition Kuomintang protest against the import of U.S. pork containing ractopamine at the parliament in Taipei on Dec. 24, 2020.   © Reuters

The DPP's most difficult challenge might be regarding the referendum on U.S. pork, which puts President Tsai between the will of the electorate and a chance for Taiwan to sign a long-stalled free trade agreement with the U.S.

Past food safety scandals have made many Taiwanese suspicious of Ractopamine-laced pork from the U.S. Nevertheless, President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020 lifted a longtime import ban on U.S. pork and beef to revive the stalled deal.

Even though the Biden administration has announced it will resume trade talks with Taiwan, and despite many restaurants and importers refusing to carry what Taiwanese refer to as "ractopork," the issue has helped the opposition gain political points.

"No one is going to buy [U.S. pork] because people here support Taiwan pork more," said Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University who researches Taiwan's political parties. "But it's still important for the DPP to get it passed because it's become so central to U.S.-Taiwan trade relations."

A COVID-19 vaccine dilemma could help change public perception of the U.S. As Taiwan faces a severe shortage of vaccine supplies due to production delays, Japan has stepped in with 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the U.S. has pledged 750,000 doses.

If Taiwan were to receive more supplies from the U.S., or approval from U.S.-based Moderna to domestically produce that company's vaccine, it could sway public opinion, said Wei-ting Yen, who studies comparative political economy and welfare states as an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College's government department.

"Right now, vaccine politics dominates the whole island," Yen said. "I think as there are continuing efforts from different countries to get Taiwan vaccines, this will be a political issue for the [foreseeable] future, until we get enough vaccines."

While many Taiwanese feel they have been forced to accept U.S. concessions like pork imports in the past, Yen said that "as vaccine politics unfolds, the dynamic may change. People's perception of whether the U.S. is lending a hand in giving vaccines may change."

Taiwan's COVID-19 situation could also impact the energy referendums. Back-to-back blackouts in May, triggered by a surge in demand from more people spending time at home under lockdown, have brought energy policy to the forefront.

Voters will be asked whether they want to resume construction of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant and whether they oppose construction of a natural gas terminal on the 7,000 year-old Datan Algal Reef, off the island's northwest coast. The 27-km reef is home to a diversity of aquatic wildlife, including endangered coral species.

Nuclear power has long been controversial in Taiwan, with fears exacerbated by the triple meltdown a decade ago in Japan's Fukushima Prefecture. The issue is a major sticking point for Taiwan's older generation of DPP members and activists, Chen said, as many of them got their start in the environmental protection and anti-nuclear movements.

Younger voters, however, feel less strongly about nuclear power as they have weaker or no memories of events like Fukushima and Chernobyl, said Chen, who anticipates a tight vote.

Whether the ballot items pass will require the turnout of 25% of the electorate -- or around 5 million voters -- and this ties into the final referendum. Referendums tied to elections typically get a higher turnout.

"The DPP is advocating for disconnecting the two dates," Yen said, "with the KMT advocating for connecting the two dates."

At the same time, Yen said, "it's easier to manipulate [the vote] if it's tied to an election date. If it's on a separate date, it's going to be people who really care about issues who will cast their vote."

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