Taiwan: Progressive Taiwanese Civil Society Sees Defeat By Way Of National Referendum

by Brian Hioe

THE RESULTS OF referendum voting will no doubt come as a great shock to progressive Taiwanese civil society with, quite literally, all of the referendum proposals they championed being voted down. On the other hand, all of the referendums they opposed passed. However, not all of these achieved the necessary 25% of voter participation needed to be legally binding. There were a total of ten referendum questions.

Namely, in the years before the Sunflower Movement and afterward, a certain political consensus came to emerge among Taiwanese social movement activists. Despite the fact that issues as support for gay marriage, opposition to nuclear energy, support for environment-friendly, renewable sources of energy, support for referendum reform, and advocacy for Taiwanese independence may have had no inherent relation to each other, these issues were broadly embraced by Taiwanese civil society under the framework of progressive politics.

Yet referendums on supporting gay marriage, LGBTQ-friendly Gender Equality Education, legal provisions to phase out nuclear energy by 2025, and the call for Taiwan to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” were voted down yesterday. Voters agreed that Taiwan should reduce the amount of power it uses from thermal power plants by 1% per year and in favor of energy policy to stop the construction of coal-fired power plants or generators. Taiwan also voted against allowing food imports from areas affected by the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Of these referendums, the referendum questions which reached the 25% of eligible voter participation to be legally binding are those against gay marriage, against the nuclear energy phase-out, against gender equality education, against new coal-fired power plants, in favor of thermal power reduction, and against food imports from Fukushima-affected areas.

It was a worry before the referendum that there would be mass confusion because of two sets of questions on marriage equality and LGBTQ-friendly Gender Equality Education. After anti-gay groups were successful in petitioning for both to be put under referendum, LGBTQ groups petitioned to ask the same of voters, except with wording favorable to marriage equality and LGBTQ-friendly education instead wording unfavorable to marriage equality and LGBTQ-friendly education.

Ironically enough, this turned out to be a non-issue. Instead, voters consistently voted down the question with wording favorable to marriage equality and LGBTQ-friendly education and voted positively for the set of questions with unfavorable wording on marriage equality and LGBTQ-friendly education pushed for by anti-gay groups. This, then, perhaps throws cold water onto the notion that Taiwan is a progressive society, showing that those who support gay marriage are actually a minority and not a majority in Taiwanese society, as was previously believed, or at least that anti-gay groups have succeeded in swaying public opinion in the last two years, since the results of the referendum contradict past surveys.

In theory, the ruling in May 2017 by the Council of Grand Justices that same-sex marriage must be legalized in two years by the legislature still stands. There are about six months left until this deadline is reached. One expects to see anti-gay groups to move ahead with legal challenges to this ruling, newly emboldened by their victory, on the basis that a binding referendum is a constitutional right. Pro-marriage equality groups will likely argue that human rights guaranteed in the constitution are not subject to a referendum and that the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices should take precedent and also seek a legal challenge.

Read more via New Bloom Magazine