Ten National Referendums

Written by Timothy Rich.

Alongside local elections, Taiwanese also faced ten national referendums on Saturday, 24th of November. This proliferation was made possible by changes in the referendum law in December 2017 that considerably lowered the bar for national ballot access as well as the threshold of participation for the referendum to pass, down from 50 percent to 25 percent of the electorate.

Proponents commonly view referendums as the clearest form of direct democracy, yet the process of getting referendums on the ballot strongly favour organized groups often with narrower interests than the public at large. Recent historical examples of close votes in binding referendums such as Brexit further indicate the ability of referendums to deepen existing political cleavages. Yet, even non-binding or non-transparent referendums have the ability to shift political discourse and limit the actions of those in office, concerned about their own re-elections.

That five of the referendums deals with LGBT rights (Referendums 10-12, 14-15) and are mutually inconsistent simply affirms that same-sex marriage and LGBT rights more broadly have become politically salient in a country in which this did not appear the case just a few years ago. For example, data from the Taiwan Social Change Surveys in 2012 and 2015 does not find a statistically significance relation between support for either of the main parties and support for same-sex marriage, with slight majorities overall supportive of legalization. Additional surveys, including those from the KMT, also found slight majorities in support. In fact, multiple waves of the World Values Survey over nearly twenty years suggested broadly a more welcoming environment to homosexuals in Taiwan.

Yet, across all five referendums, support for same-sex marriage and broader LGBT issues were broadly opposed (see the Central Election Commission results). In Referendum issue 10, roughly 70 percent approved of limiting the Civil Code to marriage between one man and one woman, while a slightly lower percentage of voters (64%) opposed granting same-sex marriage rights within the Civil Code (Number 14). Two additional questions, virtually mirror versions of one another, again showed general opposition to LGBT issues. In Issue Number 11, 64 percent agreed that the Ministry of Education should not implement the Gender Equity Education Act in elementary and middle schools, which would teach about gender equality and sex (including same-sex) education, while 62 percent opposed Issue Number 15 that asked about enforcement of the same act. Lastly, smaller majorities (58 percent) agreed to the protections of cohabiting same-sex couples without amending the Civil Code (Number 12), rights that had expanded over the last three years through local government initiatives to cover almost the entirety of Taiwan.

With the Constitutional Court decision in May of 2017 that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marriage, and the court giving the Legislative Yuan a two-year deadline to amend the Civil Code, supporters expected a timely legislative response. Yet the continued rise of an organized opposition, one that fuelled the recall campaign against pro legalization legislator Huang Kuo-Chang, and perhaps concerns that legislative revisions could influence the local elections, the Legislative Yuan has made no serious effort to amend the Civil Code. This is despite, according to Pridewatch, a majority of legislators supporting legalization with only nine legislators (8.9%) coded as opposed to legalization.

The results of the referendums further indicate the organization of opposition groups and the ability of opponents to frame same-sex marriage in terms of traditional values broadly defined. Sidestepping the thornier philosophical issue of whether the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties should be left to a popular vote, the results suggest the Tsai administration and the DPP may further shy away from 2016 campaign promises for legalization. This is despite pre-election statements that the results of the referendum would not change the constitutional rights as declared in the May 2017 Constitutional Court decision. After all, evidence suggests not only broad opposition according to the referendums, but a generational divide even within their own party. Instead of resolving the issue and making Taiwan the first country in the region to formally legalize same-sex marriage, the results will likely lead to the issue remaining politically salient, and will potentially influence the 2020 elections. Now, opponents of legalization are energized, and supporters are disenchanted with what many perceive has been an unwillingness to meet key campaign promises.

Timothy Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research interest concerns East Asian domestic and international politics, including electoral politics, diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, cross-strait relations, and support for same-sex marriage legislation. Image credit: CC by Shih-Shiuan Kao/Flickr.

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