What you need to know
It's a dangerous, despicable strategy that also has no mooring in the reality of how their voters feel about marriage equality.
On Nov. 24, Taiwanese voters decided on three referendum questions directly pertaining to the issue of same-sex marriage. They were:
- Question 10: Do you agree that Civil Code regulations (constitution) should restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman?
- Question 12: Do you agree to types of unions, other than those stated in the marriage regulations in the Civil Code, to protect the rights of same-sex couples who live together permanently?
- Question 14: Do you agree that the Civil Code marriage regulations should be used to guarantee the rights of same-sex couples to get married?
Questions 10 and 12 were provided by anti-marriage equality groups. Question 14 was proposed by pro-equality advocates.
Yesterday, I argued that the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), the more conservative-leaning of Taiwan’s two major parties, was able to manipulate these referendum questions to help voters deliver a harsh rebuke of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at the polls.
However, the anti-marriage equality campaign was built on a foundation of lies.
In the first place, there was criticism that their referendum questions were intended to mislead. On question 12, the question was phrased as coming out with a separate law aimed at “protecting” same-sex relationships. Ahead of the vote, there was persistent chatter that anti-LGBT campaigners were going around misleading others by telling people that they should vote “yes” for question 12 because it would serve to “protect” the rights of same-sex couples, even if it would deny them equal protections.
When I watched one of their first anti-LGBT campaign videos in 2016, I was shocked. In the video, they were telling people that if same-sex marriage becomes legalized, “you will never be able to call your father a “father” or your mother a “mother,” and you would only be able to refer to them as “relatives.”
What is worrying is that the anti-equality groups have the resources to buy television advertisements to spread such falsehoods while marriage equality advocates do not. Pro-equality groups have also reported 2,000 irregularities at the voting stations during the referendum.
I was told by a friend that his brother spoke of an elderly lady being in front of him who did not understand what the referendum was about. One of the officials had then said that he would help her “chop” on the voting slip for her to put into the ballot box. (In Taiwan, voting is done by using designated “chops” to indicate your votes on the ballot.)
The anti-marriage equality campaign was built on a foundation of lies.
Not only that, during their election campaign rallies, the KMT also invited anti-equality groups to their rallies. This helped tilt the balance.
I had attended the rallies of the different candidates for the mayoral elections in Taipei, and I was shocked to hear anti-LGBT rhetoric being spewed on stage at KMT rallies. Anti-equality groups were also forcing flyers into the hands of the attendees. I had to say no to the flyers at least five times.
The KMT, as I argued yesterday, found a way to latch onto the same-sex issue for its own agenda. In a bid to gain support from conservatives, the KMT threw gay people under the bus.
But the underhanded tactics that the anti-LGBT groups used in their campaigning, and the co-opting of anti-equality sentiments by some KMT candidates, has resulted in adverse effects.
According to DPP legislator Yu Mei-nu (尤美女), nine gay people have committed suicide since the referendums, with two others have attempted suicide and 23 people have reported being bullied. Calls to the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBT) Hotline even jumped 40 percent, with four out of 10 calls being about the referendum.
For some, the effects might be short-lived as Taiwan goes back to post-election normalcy. But even though the referendum was not a vote against same-sex individuals – the majority voted in favor of some form of legalization for same-sex couples – the psychological effect was that people did feel rejected, and the vote for same-sex relationships to be relegated to “second class” might also have given some people a reason to legitimize discrimination. As such, a campaign mired in falsities and conservatives who had ran a campaign disregarding the emotions of other fellow citizens is highly irresponsible and despicable.
However, in a bid to protect themselves, the DPP which lost heavily during the local mid-term elections, seems to have decided to also put the blame on legislator Yu, on the basis that her pro-same sex marriage advocacy had cost the DPP their votes.
The DPP seemed to have quickly forgotten that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had won the presidential election in 2016 on the platform of legalizing same-sex marriage. If anything, same-sex marriage is a non-issue to voters.
Yang Kuang-shun (楊光舜) from the School of Politics & Global Studies compared the results of the “yes” votes for Question 10 (to restrict the Civil Code to heterosexual marriages) with votes in support of President Tsai in 2016’s election and showed that there was a correlation, in that in areas where there was greater support for the DPP, there were also higher “yes” votes to Question 10. He therefore surmised that the DPP is trapped in a conundrum where they have to appease their conservative voters while not offending their liberal voters.
I do not quite agree with this idea.
The votes for the referendum have to be seen in the context of the wider historical trends that, up until 2016, support for same-sex marriage was increasing. A 2015 survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice of over 310,000 Taiwanese showed that 71 percent of the population supported the right for same-sex couples to marry.
However, after the 2016 election, support for the DPP started to decline as the Taiwanese became disillusioned with its performance on the economic front. Meanwhile, there was no corresponding uptick in support for the KMT, which the anti-LGBT referendums found themselves aligned to. As such, giving protest votes against marriage equality might not be disagreement on same-sex marriage in itself, rather than disagreement with the DPP on other matters. Lest we forget, the majority also voted in favor of legalizing same-sex relationships in some form – even if in the form of a law separate to Taiwan’s Civil Code.
Rather than making same-sex marriage the scapegoat for their loss, the DPP should instead reflect on how their inaction allowed same-sex marriage to become so heavily politicized. Taiwanese were previously quite easy-going about legalizing same-sex marriage as there was not that much negative rhetoric being transmitted by the anti-LGBT groups. However, LGBT people have now become victimized because of the negative campaign run by conservative advocates and assisted by KMT candidates.
The DPP had many opportunities to nip this negativity in the bud: to either amend the Civil Code or introduce some sort of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage since taking back power in 2016. There were actually various versions of a viable legislation sitting in the country’s Legislative Yuan, but the DPP chose not to act on it. In fact, even with a majority in the legislature, they decided to block an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage. This gave room for anti-LGBT groups to ramp up their hate campaigns.
If there is any reflection to be made, it is that the DPP’s inaction on this issue has allowed them to lose control of the plot, while allowing the KMT to seize control and turn it against the DPP. If anything, the DPP lost because of the way they played their politics – they became a turncoat by becoming conservative on the issue.
President Tsai said as much last week when she said: “Although I have made policy decisions, I did not lead from the frontline. That has left supporters clueless on how to defend and has allowed opponents to gather strength.”
“The DPP has been sandwiched between the opposing sides of various issues,” she added. “We wanted to strike a balance, but we were attacked by both sides.”
The question is, even though President Tsai has acknowledged where the problem lies, do the party and its internal factions even recognize this?
The mistake for the DPP to make now is to think that support for same-sex marriage cost them votes. Looking back, the LGBT population was used as a pawn by KMT candidates to ignite displeasure against the DPP government, by running a campaign based on fearmongering, and arousing people’s fears.
But why does fear work?
According to Professor John Bargh from Yale University: “Over a decade now of research in political psychology consistently shows that how physically threatened or fearful a person feels is a key factor – although clearly not the only one – in whether he or she holds conservative or liberal attitudes”.
This is why “Republican politicians [in the United States] are […] likely to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and immigration, relying on fear as a motivator to gain votes.”
This is the same as how the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has ruled for nearly 60 years in Singapore, where I come from, has also used “terrorism” to the same effect.
In Taiwan, KMT candidates have hijacked the issue of same-sex marriage to do the same at this local election.
How is it sensible for the DPP to blame their loss on same-sex marriage when they had shown hardly any support for marriage equality over the last few months?
But the question remains: Have Taiwanese really become conservative on the issue of same-sex marriage?
According to Professor Bargh, “Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do.”
But if people “imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal – their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents,” he wrote.
Thus people’s beliefs are not set in stone, and they change with the prevailing climate of fear or safety.
Professor Bargh therefore said: “Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.”
On what the DPP should do, Professor Bargh said the following about liberal parties: “It makes sense that liberal politicians intuitively portray danger as manageable.”
What the DPP needs to therefore understand is that when they won in the 2016 presidential election, it was because the Taiwanese had hoped that things would become better. This allowed them to envision feeling “safer” under a new government. They therefore voted for the progressive values which President Tsai campaigned on at the time.
However, as many analysts have pointed out, when the voters’ hopes that their livelihoods would become better did not materialize but in fact largely remained the same, the KMT swooped in to manipulate the voters’ fears and turn the tide against the DPP. The DPP therefore failed because, simply put, they did not fail to live up to expectations.
This is something Premier William Lai (賴清德) seems to have understood from the mid-term elections when he said on Nov. 24: “It is the shared opinion of all Cabinet-level agencies that the reforms led by the government should be able to give people hope.
“We must realize that it is the government’s responsibility to lessen people’s burden. We must stand by every family through the hardships in their lives,” he said.
Thus the real issue isn’t the DPP’s support (or lack of) of same-sex marriage. The real issue has always been about people’s concerns over their livelihoods.
For example, in a survey in 2016 among youths who plan to work abroad, 89.2 percent indicated that it was because of the low salaries in Taiwan.
When the DPP came into government, they could have ridden the tide of progressivism by introducing other progressive policies to enable voters to continue to feel “safe” and thereby continue to support the DPP. The DPP did reform the pension system, but this did not allow older Taiwanese to feel that their livelihoods have improved. Neither did the party’s efforts towards transitional justice. Also, the backtracking of the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day policy,” which was intended to give workers a compulsory rest day every week, in favor of business interests did not help workers.
President Tsai was somewhat correct when she said last week: “When we pushed for reforms, we did not provide sufficient comfort to people who were adversely affected.”
But the key question is also whether the DPP prioritized the right reforms. If their initial policies were to increase wages and to look at how housing prices could be reduced, or to provide more public housing to supplement housing needs, these would have improved the lives of the Taiwanese, especially for the youths – which would have secured greater confidence in the DPP government. News that a draft minimum wage bill will be finally sent before the Cabinet before the end of the year is therefore the right move, but it is unfathomable why it was not done earlier before the mid-term elections. For the last two to three years, I kept looking out for signs that the DPP would introduce policies to help workers but I did not see any major ones. As a worker myself, this was a concern to me as well. It was not surprising therefore that there was a turn of tide against the DPP.
In a letter to her party members last week after the election, President Tsai also said: “The government has conducted reforms at a pace that has allowed more room for it to listen to and talk to people with different views about the targeted agendas.”
In that sense, I do respect that Tsai had allowed the time and space for others to debate and discuss policies – such as the pension reforms, on which debate dragged on for months – and even reduced the criteria for the referendums, which ironically gave the KMT a tool with which to attack the DPP.
But the DPP cannot only introduce policies to strengthen Taiwan’s democracy or act in good faith of democracy when the populace has not caught up. In my conversations with other Taiwanese, the topic of whether the Taiwanese have critical democratic literacy always pops up.
Like the conversation I had with some youths last week, wages have always been a central concern. If wages are too low, what is democracy if it does not put food on the table? This is something I have heard from many youths, who have questioned if an authoritarian government might therefore be better. In order for the citizenry to have the capacity to partake in democratic debate, they need to be properly fed first.
As Oren Levin-Waldman, Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at the Metropolitan College of New York and Research Scholar at the Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, explained: “Inequality, especially in its extreme form of poverty, does in the end deprive us of our capabilities, which is said to be a kind of freedom.”
He said: “A democracy, especially as its legitimacy and power are derived from popular consent, assumes that individuals have the capacity to reason for themselves, i.e. to deliberate in the public square, and to act on that capacity in a responsible manner. They cannot effectively participate, whether it be in full policy discussions or selecting their own representatives, if they cannot deliberate in a rational manner.”
“As democracy requires that individuals execute their agency, human agency must be protected. But this human agency also presupposes that basic material needs will have been met, which may be less likely given ever widening disparities in wealth and income,” Waldman added. “Democracy also requires a measure of trust between people, and growing income inequality is said to threaten trust as various groups, mainly those at the bottom, experience political alienation and perceive the system not to be fair.”
Finally, he concluded: “Specifically, voters appeared to be rebelling against political elites who apparently were unable to deliver good job growth with rising wages.”
In another paper Waldman published, he also explained: “Minimum wage furthers the ends of democratic society in that low-wage workers may achieve greater equality of standing with their peers to the extent that income inequality is at all lessened; their autonomy as individuals is enhanced through higher wages, which in turn enables them to claim the benefits of citizenship and participate more effectively in the democratic process; and it fosters greater economic development in that it raises the overall structure of a region and perhaps the productivity of that region.”
Maybe we should ask whether Taiwan’s legislators can imagine living on the minimum wage of NT$23,100 (US$753) a month, or even NT$30,000 (US$978). If they would find it tough, undoubtedly the one-third of Taiwanese workers who earn less than NT$30,000 would have even less patience to contemplate democratic issues if their sole concern is making ends meet.
The breakdown of votes where voters with higher education and a corresponding higher income were more likely to vote in favor of same-sex marriage equality, as shown here by a group of Taiwanese netizens, makes this clear.
Tsai had also said: “When we advance toward progressive values, we did not pay attention to the acceptance of the values among the public.”
But the question isn’t so much about people’s acceptance. After all, Taiwanese were gradually becoming more progressive on same-sex marriage leading up to 2016 before apparently turning conservative after their fears were aroused by a misleading campaign, fueled by fears of threats to their livelihoods.
As Tsai and her government continue to act in the good faith of democracy, they must understand that the growth of democracy does not simply mean applying democratic principles without preparing the citizenry for it. They must help the populace first by ensuring that their fears over their basic needs are alleviated, so that they have the capacity to fully participate in the democratic process.
Also, importantly, the DPP cannot pick and choose which progressive values it wants to pursue. On issues like transitional justice, the DPP has moved urgently. On minimum wage, it took nearly three years before it finally acted last week – and that was only after it lost the mid-term elections.
On the rollback of the “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day policy” which was not seen as protecting workers’ interest, the DPP was willing to push it through using its legislative majority. Conversely, on same-sex marriage, the DPP took no action since it gained power in 2016.
These make for an inconsistent application of democratic and progressive values by the DPP.
Human rights and democracy cannot be used as a showcase by the DPP government to differentiate itself from KMT and to build political alliances with the world. Its practice must be meaningful to its inhabitants so that they will understand the benefits of democracy and partake in the process to help entrench democratic rule in Taiwan. The implementation of democracy must be honest and consistent.
It is therefore misguided to solely attribute the DPP’s loss to their public position on same-sex marriage. How is it sensible for the DPP to blame their loss on same-sex marriage when they had shown hardly any support for marriage equality over the last few months?
The DPP must understand how voters’ mindsets change according to their economic realities at a particular point in time, and how their economic realities are shaped by the government’s policies. And if the DPP wants to retain their hold over presidency at the next election, they must understand what kind of progressive policies they have to implement to keep the populace feeling “safe” enough to continue voting for progressivism, and thus for the DPP. A return to the KMT, which favors closer ties with China, might put Taiwan’s independence at risk. The DPP must pinpoint the right problems to truly be the protector of Taiwan’s democracy it claims to be.
Of course, if the DPP decides to retreat from its progressive values and chase after conservative voters, it would only be competing with the KMT on its own turf. Conservative ideals are already the domain of the KMT, and the DPP would not be able to beat the KMT at their game – not in this current political landscape.
Moreover, if the DPP decides to turn towards conservativism, this would leave a gap for voters who support progressive ideals and who would likely turn to voting for other “Third Force” progressive parties like the New Power Party or Social Democratic Party. This might be a positive development, of course, as it would allow for more political competition and plural voices to speak up for Taiwanese citizens. For the DPP, however, this would mean the loss of its progressive voting base – a loss which it could very well never recover from.
J. Michael Cole of the China Policy Institute/Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham, UK, also pointed out that within the DPP “elder members of the “deep green” camp have also announced they will form their own political party and field candidates in 2020,” which if so, as Cole wrote, “could split the party and hurt its chances of victory.”
In the end, it is likely that the majority of Taiwan’s voters are neither conservative or liberal when it comes to same-sex issues. They are most likely centrist. However, the referendum questions were aligned to match the popular displeasure with the DPP’s economic performance – and it did not matter that the KMT failed to do a better job of managing the economy when it was last in power. The DPP actually outperformed the KMT in terms of GDP growth, unemployment and even minimum wage growth. For voters, however, the growth was still minimal.
Perhaps voters felt they had no choice between the underperforming DPP and uninspiring KMT – they needed to make their own statement. But this does not mean that voters are actually conservative. They may have moved towards becoming conservative for these local elections, but when the political climate becomes more progressive, they will likely shift again.
If the same-sex marriage referendums were held during the presidential election in early 2016, and voters had given their protest vote against the KMT, it is likely the results would have been very different and same-sex marriage would have won without question.
Looking at how the DPP had lost about 25 percent support by Sep. 2018, from its peak in mid-2016, if we were to use the roughly 50 to 60 percent support for same-sex marriage in the surveys prior to 2016, a 25 percent decrease from these surveys would bring us right around the 32.74 percent that the support for the same-sex marriage referendum received.
It would thus be a mistake to equate how Taiwanese voted in the referendum as a reflection of their attitudes on same-sex marriage. It is instead far more important to understand how the political climate would influence support for same-sex marriage, and how the political climate should therefore be taken into account in the advocacy for marriage equality.
If anything, this referendum only showed how the KMT is better at playing politics, even as the opposition.
But it offers some reflection points for all of us.
For the KMT and conservatives, throwing gay people under the bus and making use of LGBT issues to win support is despicable and should not be accepted in a society governed on human rights. But we should not be hopeful that the KMT is likely to move away from using such underhanded means.
For the DPP and same-sex marriage advocates, it would mean that there is a need to better pre-empt the campaigns run on falsehoods by anti-LGBT groups and to improve early fundraising efforts to run more effective campaigns.
To be fair, pro-equality groups have been running their campaign for more than a decade, while anti-LGBT groups only ramped theirs up over the last few years. The sudden change in attitudes among the populace due to the negative campaigning, and their use of their votes as a protest against the current government, could have been unanticipated. The anti-equality groups also had a strong army of volunteers who hit the streets to hand out flyers. The same-sex marriage advocates therefore have to look at how they have to work on recruiting volunteers more effectively for the upcoming battle.
In any case, the pro-equality groups can be proud that at least they ran a clean campaign, based on facts. The same cannot at all be said for the other side. Their win against same-sex marriage can therefore not be said to be an honorable one.
What pride is there to take in your win based on one run on falsehoods? I don't think God told people to go forth and lie.
Both marriage equality advocates and anti-equality groups have now decided to take to the law to fight the next stage of their campaign, an irony for the anti-LGBT groups which had decried the courts' ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
On the other hand, the Judicial Yuan has also said that the referendum results cannot contradict the interpretation made by the Constitutional Court, which is that prohibiting same-sex marriage in the Civil Code is unconstitutional and this decision also ranks the highest in the legal hierarchy.
If it is any comfort, the referendum results should give an indication that voters do not actually have a strong stance on the issue. After all, the large majority have been shown to still be willing to vote in favor of some form of legalization for same-sex relationships. Moving forward, any move towards progressivism on the issue, even by the government, shouldn't leave too much of an imprint in the minds of voters, as long as the government can assure them that their livelihoods will be get better and wages will increase.
By building trust with the voters on their economic livelihoods, it is likely that voters will be less swayed by conservative rhetoric.
If so, the fight for marriage equality is still not over. In fact, if we read the votes and voter sentiment accurately, Taiwan may still have a golden opportunity.
In Taiwan, the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 0800-788-995. Foreigners in Taiwan can call the 24-hour toll-free 1955 telephone counseling hotline. Other international suicide helplines can be found at https://www.befrienders.org.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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