The result of the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Taiwan struck me. During my time there — I was a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University during the last academic year — I was under the impression that the island state had a positive outlook, a liberal attitude and, especially among the young, a humanist and enlightened approach to things.
Religion seemed to not have an overarching, determining quality over the lives of people, and Taiwanese all over seemed to enjoy the blessings of a liberal democracy, such as freedom of speech.
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In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won Taiwan’s presidency by convincing people outside the metropolitan area of Taipei to vote for the party’s liberal approach to politics.
The city of Taipei has, for historical reasons, been very close to the Kuomintang (KMT) party and its agenda of reunification with mainland China.
‘The young may need to tell the older generation that Taiwan will not transform into an ‘HIV island,’ as religious marriage equality opponents phrased it,’ says Görlach
In the voting marathon over the weekend, same-sex marriage was not the only casualty; the DPP lost decisively and suffered heavy defeats in local elections across the island.
When I was in Taiwan, I heard some saying that the older generation might not be in favor of same-sex marriage as they fear it would erode traditional, family values. I also learnt that evangelical churches from the United States would fund campaigns against marriage equality.
Christians make up just 5 percent of Taiwanese population. So it was difficult for me to imagine that a tiny group of religious zealots would be able to swing a rather positive attitude into an illiberal mood.
Young people losing
It’s Taiwan’s young generation that is now losing: With a more backward-looking majority of older Taiwanese that came out to vote on Saturday, the future of the young appears to be bleak.
With the presence of China as a strong and opposing neighbor, the new generation of Taiwanese, especially the one that grew up in a liberal democracy, will be deprived of its options to succeed in tomorrow’s world.
It is paramount that Taiwan, if it decides to continue its current path, needs as many allies as possible in the democratic world. These democracies are being connected through the framework of liberal values that acknowledge human rights. Taiwan is a part of their family already. To remain there, it may have to learn to fight for what it believes in rather than let the trappings and superstition of old religions come in the way of progress.
Religion may play a good role in society as long as it encourages its adherents to be empathic with one another, including the neighbor who may be of another or of no faith at all. The young may need to tell the older generation that Taiwan will not transform into an “HIV island,” as religious marriage equality opponents phrased it.
Empathy is needed in plural societies. Intergenerational differences in opinion are one, fully legitimate, aspect of such a plurality. In a democracy, freedom requires hard work. So talk to one another more.
Drubbing at the ballot box
The DPP has now been shattered. Following the disaster at the ballot box, Tsai resigned as the party’s chairwoman.
It is unlikely that she will run again for the presidency. In the run-up to the referendum, the party was marred by a lack of leadership. In some places, people had to wait for two hours to get to the voting booth. The referendum was also legally nonbinding and advisory only. It came after Taiwan’s Supreme Court had already ruled on the matter in May 2017, when the judges told the island’s legislators to make same-sex marriage legal within two years.
The referendum cannot change that ruling. But as it controlled the committee that oversees referendums, the DPP did not want to be seen as standing in the way of holding a popular vote on a subject that many in the party were in favor of.
As a strong leader of a liberal democracy, Tsai should have been able to explain to her electorate what was possible and what wasn’t. Ducking out back then when leadership was needed may have led to the defeat now. The referendum will not and cannot change the ruling of the Supreme Court. The government was given two year to implement a law, or the court will. The legislators now have half a year to act.
The situation currently is a mess and may well result in a constitutional crisis.
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On the bright side: 30 percent of those who voted on the issue were in favor of marriage equality. That is not too bad after all. And the difficulties that Taiwan is facing on its way to marriage equality are not unique to the island, given that a country like Germany has only just recently allowed same-sex marriage, with Chancellor Angela Merkel voting against it.
Remember how fiercely fundamentalist Christians in the United States fought against marriage equality becoming law of the land.
Beijing may not have had a particular stance on the marriage equality question. It may, however, have been pleased that the portrayal of the island as being more modern than mainland China has taken a beating.
It would be an understatement to say that China has been adamant that it would not work with President Tsai and her pro-independence party. The blow the voters gave the DPP may, again, feel very good in Beijing.
But putting this aside, the question remains: Who do the Taiwanese want to be? There is no doubt that both Taiwan and mainland China share a common past and history that goes back millennia. But what about the future? These questions are more open and demand an answer today more than they did before the referendum.
Alexander Görlach is a Harvard Scholar and a senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and honorary professor for ethics and theology at the University of Lüneburg, Germany. He holds PhDs in comparative religion and linguistics.