OPINION: Tsai Has Only Herself to Blame If Marriage Equality Referendums Fail

OPINION: Tsai Has Only Herself to Blame If Marriage Equality Referendums Fail
Credit: 婚姻平權大平台-相挺為平權,全民撐同志 / Facebook
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Taiwan may be speeding towards an avoidable conflict between a judicial ruling and the popular vote.

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By Brian Hioe

Efforts to realize marriage equality in Taiwan may be heading into a minefield.

Two referendums on marriage equality and sexual education, backed by marriage equality supporters, have reached the necessary benchmarks and are slated to appear on November’s ballots. They will appear alongside competing referendums backed by groups opposing marriage equality and containing phrasing unfavorable to gay marriage.

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Credit: 婚姻平權大平台-相挺為平權,全民撐同志 / Facebook
Volunteers collect signatures for the pro-marriage quality referendum.

It remains to be seen how the Central Election Commission (CEC) will handle the apparent contradiction of two referendums on the same issue with different wording. It would, after all, be illogical for all to appear on the ballot.

If both did appear on the ballot, this could also hypothetically lead to contradictory results, such as referendums with wording favorable to and against gay marriage passing. The CEC may try to find wording in between the phrasing of referendums favorable and unfavorable to gay marriage, but it will probably come under fire from either side no matter how it handles the situation.

On the other hand, it is unknown how the Taiwanese public will vote on the referendums. Before 2016, it was generally thought that marriage equality would pass into law rather speedily in Taiwan, given the lack of any outspoken social opposition, and what was seen as the progressive bent of Taiwanese society. Nevertheless, this proved mistaken, with the rise of anti-marriage equality movements largely led by Christian and other religious groups.

Such groups demonstrated up until the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices in May 2017 that marriage equality would need to be legalized within two years. They successfully demonstrated that there was some level of social opposition to the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan, effectively causing elements of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to break away from President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) commitment to push for marriage equality as chair of the DPP.

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Credit: 我愛家我公投 / Facebook
Groups opposing same-sex marriages collect signatures for their referendum proposals.

Although large-scale anti-marriage equality protests have not taken place in past months, indications are that the pro-marriage equality camp is outgunned by anti-marriage equality groups, seeing as the anti-gay marriage equality referendum was able to gain signatures more quickly than its pro-gay marriage counterpart.

This may not indicate that more people in Taiwan oppose marriage equality than support it, per se, but this does seem to indicate that the anti-gay marriage side has superior resources. This was observed previously with regards to a recall vote faced by New Power Party (NPP) legislator Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) for his support of gay marriage.

So what would happen if marriage equality were to be voted down? For one, a political crisis. The fact that in the past year, Taiwan has seen referendums on everything from nuclear power to gay marriage to coal-burning power plants after December 2017 changes to the Referendum Act lowered signature thresholds. The current set of referendums which will be voted on later this year, then, are a trial run for such changes.

However, what will happen if a referendum votes against something already ruled on by the Council of Grand Justices? This could lead to contention about what role referendums play in Taiwan, regarding whether judicial interpretation overrules what is, in theory, a direct referendum by Taiwanese citizens.

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Credit: Brian Hioe
Religious groups are expressing their opposition to same-sex marriage in Taiwan.

Voting by referendum has come to be seen as a fundamental right of Taiwanese citizens by many, even if referendum reform was historically pushed for by the pan-Green camp, rather than the pan-Blue camp which is decidedly closer to anti-marriage equality groups. And so the claim that the judiciary is being used to trample on the rights of the citizens will almost certainly be used against the Tsai administration.

The Tsai administration will need to tread carefully regarding how it frames the results of the referendum on marriage equality if it ends up being voted down. Of course, that the Tsai administration currently faces such difficulties returns to its initial cowardice in failing to confront anti-gay groups directly and effectively emboldening them. Stronger support of marriage equality would have nipped the problem in the bud to begin with, and it was the Tsai administration dropping its support of marriage equality in the face of opposition which has led to this present dilemma.

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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