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Celebrating modern direct democracy with a Taiwanese character

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Participants at the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Taiwan

Celebrating modern direct democracy with a Taiwanese character


A special democracy train, signature gatherers in Buddhist temples, nationwide marches for better legislation: a look back at the participatory celebration by one of the organisers of the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy.

By Bruno Kaufmann

This article originally appeared on swissinfo.

Monday morning, 9:35am. Taipei Main Station, track 3B. Over 300 passengers are boarding the eight-car narrow-gauge special headed south to the port city of Kaohsiung.

“This is the nation’s very first democracy train,” explains Transport Minister Lin Chia-Lung (of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party) in a smooth departure ceremony to welcome participants to the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy: a week of events, visits, and conversations around the question of “how can we transform people power movements on the street into well-designed institutionalized participatory and direct democracies?”

The West Pacific island state of Taiwan has come a long way in the past three decades. After the departure of the last Chinese dictator, Chiang Ching-kuo – son of general Chiang Kai-shek who had occupied the country in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war – the 23 million citizens of Taiwan have managed to quickly transform their country into one of the world’s most democratically-advanced societies.

Important milestones were the establishment of free and fair elections in the late 1990s, as well as the introduction of a user-friendly initiative and referendum process after 2004. In fact, the latter is the main reason that this year’s Global Forum – the biggest gathering of its kind worldwide – took place in Taiwan.

Citizens’ initiative for neutrality

A few hours after its departure from the capital, the Taiwan Democracy Train stops at Hsinchu, a city of 500,000 inhabitants on the west coast and home to thousands of temples.

“To us Taiwanese, temples are not just places of worship, but genuine public spaces for people from all walks of life”, says Annette Lu, a former imprisoned dissident under Chiang Ching-kuo and later Vice-President (2000-2008). Lu remains very much active in politics and has launched a citizens’ initiative to declare Taiwan a neutral country along the lines of the Swiss model. To qualify for a national referendum, Lu and her supporters need to gather at least 280,000 signatures within six months: “This will mainly be done in temples”, says the 75-year-old.

Through two days, train 6703 – the “Taiwan Democracy Train” – is visiting ten different cities along the 550-kilometre-long so-called Mountain Line. In each station, gatherings with local inhabitants take place and stories are told: both about the decades-long struggle against oppression, as well as current issues around nuclear energy, same-sex marriage and food security. These latter issues were all the subject of nationwide popular votes last November, when ten different issue-ballots were combined with local and regional elections.

“At this moment we were not prepared enough for such a mega-vote”, concedes Kao Mei-li, Director General at the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Taiwan: “Voters had to wait for many hours outside ballot stations”. Moreover, as many of the citizens’ initiatives had only qualified a few weeks ahead of voting day, the official information pamphlet by authorities were mailed to voters as late as a couple of days before decision day.

The birth of a new Magna Charta

Wednesday, noon, Taichung Railway Station. Train 6703 has reached its destination, where a three-day world conference on modern direct democracy takes off.

“We are very proud of hosting this Forum”, stresses Mayor of Taichung Lu Shiow-yen, a pragmatic former journalist of the Chinese Television system and member of the right-wing nationalist party. While not being enthusiastic at all about participatory and direct democracy – her party inherited the structures of the pre-democratic Kuomintang – she understands very well that modern democracy cannot be limited to periodic elections.

“In Taichung citizens can make their voices heard between elections by using an online platform, and they have the right to start a citizens’ initiative for a public vote”, Lu Shiow-yen underlines, before concluding her 15-minute appearance at the Global Forum by signing the “Magna Charta for an International League of Democracy Cities”.

Since the Global Forum in Tunis four years ago a global community of democracy supporters have increasingly focussed on the local potential of citizens participation around the world.

Last year, at the Forum in Rome, representatives from more than 200 cities and six continents adopted a first draft of such a global “Memorandum of Understanding” around key features of a democracy city as proposed by Rome Mayor Virgina Raggi. Outlining twenty different dimensions of democracy, the “Magna Charta” has inspired various cities since then to seriously launch efforts to counter the advance of illiberal autocrats and populists by strengthening infrastructure for citizen participation.

One example is the Finnish City of Helsinki, where all 40,000 public servants are currently undergoing direct democracy training sessions in the form of role game.

Marching for democracy – in solidarity with Hongkong

“We are the old guys, marching for a proper referendum right since 30 years ago”, says Frank Chen in one of 38 workshops being held during the Global Forum at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung. Every weekend Chen organizes walks for a better referendum act in the country.

“While we have got a lot of improvements recently, we still need to win the right to be able to amend the constitution and get rid of the 25% approval quorum”, the 70-year-old democracy activist underlines. His and many other inputs were considered during the Forum, which at the very end adopts a “Taichung Declaration on Modern Direct Democracy”, identifying ten guidelines for more and better democracy not only in Taiwan but around the world.

In the final debates a controversy erupts among the participants: should the struggle to preserve basic democratic rights in nearby Hong Kong be named explicitly or not? The shadow of Taiwan’s autocratic neighbour reaches across the sea.

Finally, the Forum agrees to keep the following formulation “…in love and solidarity with people in Hong Kong and all those fighting for their rights everywhere…”

What the more than 250 participants from over 60 countries and six continents have experienced during the 2019 Global Forum week (September 30 – October 5) was a truly diverse insight into the daily life of a modern participatory and direct democracy in a rather unlikely place – or what we could call: modern direct democracy with Taiwanese characteristics. 

What makes democracy very special here is not just the continuing threat of force by a close neighbour but especially the lively energy of the locals themselves, who are able to harness their impatience for democratic progress to create perfectly-directed ceremonies: true for the many temples around the country moonlighting as democracy centres, but also the framing of this Global Forum itself.

At the very end of the week, Taipei City mayor Ko Wen-je – a political independent – hosted the “Taipei Democracy City Summit” to celebrate the establishment of the “International league of democracy cities”. A prominent member of this new champions league of democracy-supporting local places is the Swiss capital, Bern, the host of next year’s Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy.

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