With the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the passage of a law on marriage equality seemed a done deal, and the streets of Taipei briefly thronged with euphoric gay-pride marches.
The liberal world order, or what is left of it, applauded the island for the democratic evolution of its civil rights.
Today, many Taiwanese wonder aloud whether what they are dealing with is democracy run amok. True, those who dream or campaign for the vise-like control of Beijing via unification have been relegated to the loony fringe. But it is not unusual to hear Taiwanese mutter that democracy at rudderless full steam ahead can be too much of a good thing.
The reasons are complex. The results are simply a mess.
In 2017, the Council of Grand Justices ruled that same-sex marriage should be legalized by the legislature within two years. But there the ruling languished as opposition by Christian groups and other religious associations rallied to rouse anti-gay sentiment island-wide.
Actually, the ruling by Taiwan’s Grand Justices stipulated that if the legislature did not act within two years, marriage equality would automatically pass into law. This has allowed Tsai to continue to tout Taiwan as the first jurisdiction in Asia to legalize gay marriage despite her milquetoast public support for the law.
At this point, in the first of a series of yet more bewildering twists and turns, enter an amended Referendum Act and an Election Committee that appears incapable of saying no to any referendum proposition that comes its way.
For many activists in Taiwan – largely those from the broadly pro-independence, so-called pan-Green camp – lowering the signature threshold required by the Referendum Act has long been seen as a magic bullet required for achieving positive democratic change.
In December 2017, their long-cherished dream became a reality and the act was amended. It lowered the required number of signatures to prompt a national plebiscite to 1.5% of the electorate, or around 280,000.
Tsai hailed the amendment as a historic moment in the evolution of democracy in Taiwan. They are words she may already have come to rue.
Anti-gay activists set about gathering signatures, prompting supporters of marriage equality to do the same. The newly lowered threshold to trigger plebiscites meant that both were successful.
The result is that on November 24, when Taiwanese are scheduled to troop to the polls to cast their votes for 22 local authorities, they will also be faced with the challenge of declaring their support or opposition for marriage equality in five separate referenda.
Four of them are phrased in language so similar as to render them almost identical, meaning that voters will be casting their ballots on the same question twice.
The conservative anti-gay Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance has innovatively added a referendum on whether homosexuality should be mentioned in sex-education classes. Namely: “Do you agree that the Ministry of Education and individual schools should not teach homosexual-related education, as detailed under the Enforcement Rules for the Gender Equity Education Act, in elementary and middle-level schools?”
If this were not enough to provoke pre-voting election fatigue, the Taiwanese public has the option to vote for or against changing the name Chinese-Taipei to Taiwan for international sporting events.
The remaining three referenda – bringing the total to nine – scheduled for the big day hinge on opposition to the construction of a coal mine in the north of the island, opposition to imports of food from parts of Japan affected by the Fukushima disaster, and opposition to changes in air-pollution regulations.
But to return to the question of whether Taiwan will indeed embrace marriage equality, it is complicated.
One local online publication notes that the competing referenda for and against gay marriage could “hypothetically lead to contradictory results.” But pro-gay-rights activists in Taiwan worry less about “contradictory results” than they do defeat.
As one Taiwan commentator put it:
“Indications are that the pro-marriage equality camp is outgunned by anti-marriage equality groups … as the anti-gay marriage equality referendum was able to gain signatures more quickly than its pro-gay marriage counterpart.”
Amid so much uncertainty and so many questions – literally – the only certain outcome is an added layer of divisiveness to Taiwan society, which has long been split on issues of ethnicity and the island’s sovereignty.
The other almost certain outcome is public frustration and perhaps even disgust with the elected officials that have let such a chain of events come to pass.
According to Victoria Hsu, the executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, President Tsai stands to suffer the most, having risen to power with the support of younger, progressive elements in Taiwan society.
“I think she obviously lacks [the] strong political will to keep her promise of marriage equality,” Hsu said.