Taiwan: No To Casinos, Yes To Direct Democracy

Seven years after a first popular vote, the citizens in Taiwan`s offshore Penghu archipelago confirmed their opposition to the establishment of an international gambling zone and re-energized the move towards direct democracy, reports Dennis Engbarth from Taipei.

The citizens´ initiative launched by the “Penghu International Tourism Alliance“ received 6,210 yes-votes (18.93 percent) compared to 26,598 opposed (81.07 ). The vote took place under the authority of Article 10-2 of the offshore Islands Development Act enacted by Taiwan`s previous right-wing Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in January 2009. In line with two-decade long drive for the legalization of gambling, the revision to the OIDA stated that offshore islands could apply to set up international resort zones with casinos if such proposals were approved by majority vote in a county-wide referendum.

Besides exempting such a casino from the ban on gambling, the amendment lifted the requirement for a 50 percent turnout for a valid result required by Article 30 of the Referendum Act itself. In the popular vote, which took place on October 15, 39.56 percent of 83,469 eligible voters participated. Hence the citizens of Penghu archipelago decisively rejected the proposal whether to permit the construction of a gambling casino.

First valid vote on September 26, 2009

The vote marked not only another rejection of plans for a casino resort on the Penghu (also known as Pesacadores) archipelago by voters of Penghu County, but also only the third valid popular vote on a citizens´ initiative in the history of Taiwan. [A 4th citizen-triggered vote in the city of Kaohsiung on school class size failed in 2008 due to a turn-out of less than 6%].

The first valid vote on September 26, 2009 was triggered by a similar initiative by the "Penghu International Tourism Alliance" (which had gathered 6,249 signatures, while 4,114 or 5 percent of the electorate were required) on the question of “Should Penghu host international-calibre hotels with gaming facilities?“ was defeated by a margin of 13,497 votes for (43.56 percent) and 17,359 votes against (56.44 percent) in a ballot with 42.16 percent of 73,651 eligible voters casting ballots. In another county however, Lienchang, which comprises the Matzu island group opposite China`s Fuzhou City, a majority of the 1,795 eligible voters said in 2012 yes to the prospects for a multi-billion US dollar tourist resort.

Taiwan is not Macao or Singapore

After this years defeat, the third in seven years, Chen Meng, a former journalism professor who headed the alliance, told local media that the effort to attract a casino resort was not tantamount to promoting gambling. It was aimed only at attracting global capital to build an “international tourist resort“ that could serve as a locomotive for Penghu`s sustainable development. In contrast to claims by boosters that a casino would bring floods of tourists to Penghu and generate thousands of jobs, a diverse coalition of civic reform, environmentalist, social reform, religious and Penghu-centric cultural organizations warned citizens of the massive externalized social and environmental costs of casinos in Macao, Singapore and other territories. Instead, it called for voters to reject a “Republic of Casinos“ in favour of “tourism without gambling.“

In an October 6 news conference convened by the Taiwan Anti-Gambling Alliance at the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan`s parliament, (Ms) Nien Li-yu warned that a casino would exacerbate pressure on Penghu`s scarce water resources, undermine its scenery and breed addiction to gambling and other social costs. And Taiwan Renewable Energy Alliance (TRENA) convenor (Ms) Kao Ru-ping said that casinos offered far less likely prospects of sustainable development than alternatives such as utilizing Penghu`s abundant resources of sunlight and wind to generate renewable energy.

“Through generating wind and solar power, Penghu could gain subsidies and revenues that could be invested in infrastructure and sustainable ecological and cultural tourism and create lasting employment opportunties,“ Kao said. Alliance Against Legalization of Gambling executive director (MR) Ho Tsung-hsun told P2P that the pro-casino campaign “adopted a strategy with large-scale spending on sophisticated advertisements and claims of high returns to local residents from a casino development." Ho said the pro-casino campaign`s approach “was similar to the strategy adopted in Matsu in 2012.“

The Penghu vote is a positive sign that direct democracy can be used effectively by citizens to make mature public policy decisions (Liao Fu-teh, Academia Sinica)

Activists for the anti-gambling camp carried out a grass-roots campaign of citizen forums, rallies and tours of publicity trucks with the message “I do NOT agree to gambling.“ In addition, Ho said the alliance worked to publicize the contest in Taiwan itself in order to encourage Penghu residents living on the main island to return home to cast ballots. Nevertheless, many activists worried that the pro-casino forces could win the poll. “I believed until voting day that the vote would be divided about 50:50,“ said DPP Legislator Chen Man-li, who had participated in the 2009 anti-casino campaign as chairwoman of `Homemakers United Foundation. Ho said that alliance polling had showed that a large majority of Penghu citizens opposed the casino proposal, but related that “we did not dare to be overly optimistic since there was no certainty that opponents would come out and cast ballots.“ In the end, Ho said the overwhelming “No“ vote was rooted in a “rising sense of citizen consciousness“ in Penghu.

Positive sign for direct democracy

“Most Penghu residents feel proud of the result of the 2009 referendum and are willing to come out and vote for what they want and showed that they don`t want casino development,“ Ho said. Ho also acknowledged that a October 12 statement made by President and governing center-left Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen also “had effect.“ Tsai had reaffirmed her governing party`s opposition to gambling enterprises and urged Penghu residents to “have the courage to say `No!` to gambling casinos.“

Academia Sinica Institute of Law research professor (Mr) Liao Fu-teh said that the Penghu vote was a “positive sign that direct democracy can be used effectively by citizens to make mature public policy decisions.“ Regarding claims by the pro-gambling alliance of “government interference,“ Liao (who also will be participating at the 2016 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in November in Donostia/San Sebastian) told P2P that the intervention by Tsai and other DPP leaders did not violate the principle of “administrative neutrality.“ “It is perfectly legitimate for leaders of political parties to express their policy and value preferences in an election or referendum,“ said Liao, adding that administrative neutrality concerns the fairness of government institutions in the process of carrying out a referendum. “What is really open to question is why only local popular votes on whether to establish casinos are exempted from the 50 percent turnout threshold,“ Liao said.

Since introducing legislation for modern direct democracy in 2003, six national popular votes on substantive issues have been held at the national level in Taiwan, dealing with issues like with relationship to China, UN membership and transitional justice. All have been invalidated as boycott strategies produced turnouts under the necessary 50 percent requirement nationwide. Proposals to democratize the legislation on initiatives and referendums are currently being considered in the Taiwanese parliament.