Taiwan legislators OK limited referendums

Bill narrowly written but could still cause confrontation with China

November 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan's legislature took a half-step back last night from an immediate confrontation with China, approving a bill that would allow national referendums on constitutional and sovereignty issues only under narrow circumstances.

Chinese officials had tried to dissuade Taiwanese politicians from endorsing any bill to provide for referendums. But they had devoted most of their criticisms to a rival measure - supported by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian - that would have made it easy for him to call referendums. Most provisions of that bill were defeated in the legislature last night.

Chinese and American officials had feared that legislation permitting a referendum on Taiwanese independence from the mainland would lead to a showdown in the Taiwan Strait that neither China nor the United States wants now.

China is trying to pay more attention to economic growth, especially in its interior provinces, while the United States has been preoccupied with Iraq and with seeking China's cooperation in trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party have tried to move Taiwan gingerly toward greater independence status and had sought a referendum bill for that purpose.

But most of the provisions in the final bill came from amendments by the opposition, which is against full independence and has more seats in the politically fractured legislature than Chen's party.

Even a narrowly written bill could irk Beijing's leaders, by establishing a precedent for holding any referendums on what Beijing regards as Chinese soil.

The final bill bars referendums on changing the flag of Taiwan or Taiwan's official name, the Republic of China. The legislation also makes it extremely hard to hold a referendum to amend the constitution and bars referendums to draft a new or completely rewritten constitution.

After the bill was approved, lawmakers from Chen's party were so upset that they tried to schedule additional votes to undo it.

They contended that the law involves an unconstitutional transfer of power from the executive branch to the legislature by allowing the legislature to call referendums but making it hard for the president to do so.

A government spokesman said the executive branch would issue no comment on the legislation immediately.

A provision that could still cause some dismay in Beijing is one allowing Taiwan's president to call a referendum on "national security" if the island were faced with a clear foreign threat that could erode Taiwan's territorial integrity. Even this provision stopped short of explicitly allowing a referendum on independence.

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