Call for referendum shows novice has learnt fast

Premier's bold move to support a vote on the proposed nuclear power plant catches the opposition DPP off guard

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 4:34am

Taiwan's new premier, Dr Jiang Yi-huah, appeared to have outsmarted the island's opposition parties earlier this month when he vowed to support a referendum to decide the fate of its controversial fourth nuclear power plant.

To show just how much he supports the project, Jiang has gambled his political career, pledging to step down if the public votes in favour of halting the building of the plant, whose construction has been hotly debated since 1999. Other government leaders, including Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, have joined Jiang in vowing to vote in the referendum.

Jiang says the referendum can resolve the long-running dispute, which has resulted in hundreds of protests, including some bloody confrontation between anti-nuclear activists and police.

The government favours nuclear energy as a cheap and efficient source of power that can keep the island's economy growing, and Jiang says he will resign to take political responsibility if the referendum torpedoes the project.

His pledge puts the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has long been anti-nuclear and in favour of a referendum on the plant, in a difficult position.

Dumbfounded DPP leader Su Tseng-chang could only criticise Jiang for using the referendum as a political gimmick to ease public pressure over the potential risks of the new plant following the meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Jiang's move has shown the former political science professor to be an adept politician. He was previously viewed as a political novice because he has just five years of experience in government.

Formerly known as "a younger version of Ma", Jiang taught political science at National Taiwan University after obtaining a PhD degree in that field from Yale University. He was handpicked by Ma to become the island's top research director in 2008 and his success in handling all the missions given to him by Ma - notably including a proposal to reform the pension system - earned him further promotion, to interior minister and then vice-premier before becoming premier last month.

It was a big surprise to many in political circles when Ma named Jiang cabinet head, succeeding Sean Chen, who stepped down to take the blame for the island's persistent economic woes, which have seen Ma's approval rating plunge to a low of 13 per cent.

Even some politicians from the ruling Kuomintang had doubts about Jiang, given his relatively limited experience in government office.

His referendum move, while politically smart, could prove to be a double-edged sword if a majority supports halting the project.

The KMT initiated a draft motion on the referendum last week that calls for all eligible voters in Taiwan to be asked: "Do you agree that work on the fourth nuclear power plant should be halted and that operation of the plant should never be launched?"

Passage of the referendum could be difficult, given the high threshold - a turnout of more than 50 per cent of the 18 million or so eligible voters in Taiwan, with more than half of the valid ballots in favour of the proposition.

As none of the six national referendums held between 2004 and 2008 saw a voter turnout of more than 50 per cent, critics said the KMT motion was a ploy to get the legislature to pass the remaining NT$46.2 billion (HK$12.05 billion) needed for continued construction of the nuclear power plant in Gongliao, New Taipei City.

The government-run Taiwan Power Company has so far spent NT$283.8 billion on the plant, which has been criticised by the opposition as a hybrid structure. It has been built by different foreign and local contractors, with Taiwan Power responsible for their integration. A number of construction flaws and deficiencies have been reported, and the public has constantly questioned the plant's safety.

The results of a series of public opinion polls released in recent weeks have shown that more than half of the electorate favour halting construction of the near-completed plant.

The strength of anti-nuclear sentiment was illustrated by mass demonstrations on Saturday that saw more than 200,000 people take to the streets in Taipei and three other Taiwanese cities. If that momentum continues, there is a big chance that more than 50 per cent of voters could vote to have the project scrapped.

Jiang should be asking himself whether his proposal is really in the interests of the public and the island. With no one able to guarantee that a meltdown would never occur, Jiang must ask himself if building and operating a plant in a place often hit by earthquakes is a good idea or whether the disposal of nuclear waste will become a long-running problem for future generations.

Instead of proving he's a politician who can outsmart others, Jiang, considered a political rising star, should prove he is a capable statesman.

His cabinet must release all the data needed to back Taiwan Power's claim that the plant is safe. It should also come up with convincing arguments about the safety issue rather than just warning people they could be paying more for electricity if the plant is not commissioned.