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Cabinet approves referendum despite Ma's objection

The Cabinet yesterday approved President Chen Shui-bian's proposed referendum to be held alongside the March 20 presidential poll.

The decision has formally authorized the Central Election Commission to prepare for the country's first ever referendum, although opposition "pan-blue" lawmakers are still trying to mount a last-ditch drive to overturn the plan.

During the Cabinet Council meeting where the vote plan was approved, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou made a futile attempt to block what the opposition calls an illegal vote.

"I support referendums, but I oppose illegal referendums," said Ma, the only "pan-blue" member in the Cabinet, read from a written statement he had prepared before the meeting.

"President Chen's proposed referendum does not meet the legal requirements. And as the head of a local administration and a lawyer by trade, I have to come forward to point that out," Ma added.

He did not receive a response from Premier Yu Shyi-kun and other members of the Cabinet, which then passed the plan without further deliberation. Ma later told reporters that he knew his objection was useless, but he simply wanted to leave a record in history.

President Chen formally proposed the referendum Tuesday, asking voters if they agree that Taiwan should upgrade its defense capability in light of China's missile threats, and that both sides of the strait should conduct talks on equal footing.

"Referendums are the ultimate goal of democracy," said Yu at a press conference called after the Cabinet Council meeting.

"Unless we suppressed it, democracy would develop to its utmost, no one could stop it," said Yu. He added the government is studying the design of the ballots to facilitate the voting process.

Lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) urged their "pan-blue" counterparts to drop a boycott plan against the referendum. "Pan blue" lawmakers are proposing that the Legislative Yuan discuss the referendum plan and pass a resolution to stop the vote next week.

But DPP whip Tsai Huang-liang pointed out that according to the referendum law, a president-initiated vote cannot be overridden by lawmakers.

"With the Cabinet Council's approval of the two issues to be voted on in the referendum, the referendum process has actually started," said Tsai. "I hope the 'pan-blue' coalition will stop opposing the referendum, which is about national interest and above partisan interest."

He said the opposition's anti-referendum drive may send the wrong message to China, destabilizing cross-strait stability.

Legislator Chou Hsi-wei, head of the People First Party (PFP) caucus, maintained the referendum is illegal and a waste of money. He cited the law as stipulating that for each issue on the referendum agenda, the Central Election Commission must arrange at least five rounds of debating on TV. The March 20 referendum needs at least 10 rounds, he added.

He also expressed the worry that holding the referendum alongside the presidential poll may turn the voting and ballot counting into chaos.

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