Taipei — Taiwanese lawmakers exchanged punches and threw water at each other on Friday ahead of an expected vote that would authorise a national referendum on whether to build a fourth power plant on this densely populated island of 23 million people.
Nuclear power has long been a contentious issue in Taiwan and became more so following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. While Taiwan's frequent earthquakes have led many residents to conclude that nuclear power generation constitutes an unacceptable safety risk, economic analyses suggest disruptive power shortages are inevitable if the fourth plant is not completed.
Friday's fracas pitted the pro-referendum forces of President Ma Ying-jeou's ruling Nationalist Party against strongly anti-nuclear forces affiliated with the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party. DPP lawmakers occupied the legislative podium late on Thursday night amid vows to disrupt the referendum vote, tentatively scheduled for noon on Friday. With a large Nationalist majority in the 113-seat legislature, the referendum bill is expected to pass easily.
Physical confrontations broke out on Friday morning. Associated Press television footage shows about eight people pushing and shoving in one scrum. Two people scuffled on the floor, while others tried to separate them. More than a dozen activists in bright yellow shirts chanted and waved signs on a nearby balcony, and several of them splashed water onto lawmakers below. A few water bottles were thrown into the fray.
Taiwan began transitioning away from a one-party martial law regime in 1987 and is regarded today as one of Asia's most vibrant democracies. But its political process has been undermined by occasional outbursts of violence in the legislature, much of which appears to be deliberately designed to score points among hardline supporters on either side of the island's longstanding political divide.