Taiwan votes to maintain ban on food from Fukushima disaster areas
TAIPEI, Kyodo - Voters in Taiwan approved a referendum Saturday to maintain a ban on food products from five Japanese prefectures, imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, dealing a major blow to the government of President Tsai Ing-wen and the island's relations with Japan.
The Central Election Commission website showed that a total of 7.79 million approved the initiative, well over the 25 percent required out of 19.76 million eligible voters, against 2.23 million votes in opposition.
The referendum result is legally binding and government agencies must take necessary action.
The result dealt a significant blow to the Democratic Progressive Party government that proposed easing the ban after coming to power in May 2016, but backed away when the main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) questioned the new government's ability to ensure the safety of the imported products.
Japan's de facto ambassador to Taiwan, Mikio Numata, expressed regret Sunday over approval of the referendum.
On the Facebook page of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, Numata wrote he felt "deeply regretful" that Taiwanese voters agreed to maintain the ban on food products from the five prefectures in northeastern Japan.
But Numata emphasized that he remained committed to preventing the issue from being used as "a political tool to undermine the sound relationship between Japan and Taiwan and economic exchanges."
"We will continue efforts to let our friends in Taiwan understand that Japanese food products are safe and hope the restrictions will soon be lifted," he wrote.
Taiwan government officials indicated Sunday the will of the Taiwanese people will be respected.
Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka said the Executive Yuan, as the cabinet is called in Taiwan, will ask the Ministry of Health and Welfare to continue inspections of imported Japanese food products to ensure public safety.
Hsu Fu, director of the Executive Yuan's food safety office, said the office respected the referendum result and will work closely with the Ministry of Health and Welfare on the matter.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrew Lee said the ministry respected public opinion on the issue and will let the Japanese side understand the safety concern of the Taiwanese public to avoid any negative impact on bilateral relations.
Some worry the referendum result will damage the island's relations with Japan. Taiwan's representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh, said the initiative was a KMT scheme aimed at undermining bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan at a time when the two are seeking closer ties as a way of protecting themselves from an increasingly belligerent China.
Hsieh also warned that if the referendum is successful, Taiwan would pay "a grave price" that will affect all its people.
China is the only other country still restricting comprehensive imports from Fukushima Prefecture and nearby Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi, and Chiba prefectures.
The referendum, initiated by the KMT, was one of 10 initiatives put to a vote in conjunction with Saturday's island-wide local elections.
Voters approved two other referendums initiated by the KMT. One sought to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants or the expansion of existing ones, and the other asked voters if they wanted to phase out thermal power plants.
Beijing will be happy about the result of a referendum on the name the island uses when competing at international sports events. It had sought to change the name used to participate in future international events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, from "Chinese Taipei" to "Taiwan."
The CEC website showed that more than 11.04 million cast ballots. Over 4.76 million of the eligible voters, or 24.11 percent, approved the initiative, less than the 25 percent needed for the referendum to count.
The referendum was highly unpopular among athletes, who were worried that a successful outcome would hamper their right to compete, as the International Olympic Committee resolved in May that it would stand by a 1981 agreement that Taiwanese athletes must compete as "Chinese Taipei."
The IOC had also warned that Taiwan would risk having its recognition suspended or cancelled if the referendum was successful.
China was annoyed by the proposal and pressured the East Asian Olympic Committee to revoke Taichung's plan to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.
Beijing said that if the referendum was successful, it would not sit idly by and would "definitely respond," without elaborating.
There were also five referendums relating to same-sex marriage -- three initiated by opponents of same-sex marriage and two by supporters.
The CEC website showed that all three of the anti-same sex marriage initiatives passed, while both pro-same sex marriage referenda failed.
The result puts the Tsai government in an awkward position as Taiwan's highest court, the Council of Grand Justices, ruled 18 months ago that the government must, within two years, amend the Civil Code or enact a special law legalizing gay marriage.
Tsai announced her resignation as DPP leader on Saturday following her party's disastrous defeat in the local elections, races viewed as indicators of voter sentiment ahead of the next presidential and island-wide legislative elections in 2020. (Kyodo)