Taiwanese voters will be asked on Nov. 24 to make a call on a series of questions pertaining to same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Convoluted language, misplaced expectations and the government’s middle-ground approach could cause problems down the road. Alison Hsiao looks into the matter.
On May 24, 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Civil Code provisions prohibiting marriage between two people of the same sex are in violation of the Constitution that guarantees people’s freedom of marriage and right to equality. The landmark ruling also stated that the concerned authorities (i.e., the Legislative Yuan) shall amend the relevant laws within two years from the issuance of this interpretation. On Nov. 24 this year, exactly six months to the day away from the second anniversary of the court ruling, Taiwanese will vote on referendum questions asking whether they agree with the statement that marriage regulated by the Civil Code should be limited to a union between a man and a woman, and whether they agree to protect the right of same-sex couples to form a permanent union by means other than marriage as stipulated in the Civil Code.
Soon after the Central Election Commission (CEC) approved the said referendum questions in March, people began asking how they did not contradict the Interpretation and whether the result of this referendum could upend what the Constitutional Court has granted. Now with the referendum in the offing, a more pressing and determining question is: how will the result of this referendum, binding in the sense that it is “a proposal of initiative of the legislative principles for law” (Referendum Act, Article 30), affect the country’s prospects on the same-sex marriage issue?
The CEC approved the referendum questions concerning the definition of marriage and same-sex couples’ right to form a union (along with a question about gender equality education) on April 17. This came after several hearings and criticism from pro-same-sex-marriage groups who argued that since the Judicial Interpretation was equal to the Constitution in status and effect, referendum proposals that attempt to sustain what has been ruled unconstitutional is in itself unconstitutional.
CEC Chairman Chen In-chin, in defense of the decision, said the proposals were no longer unconstitutional after the groups proposing the questions made the necessary revisions.
The questions, before revisions, were, “Do you agree that marriage should be union between a man and a woman,” and “Do you agree that the rights for two persons of the same sex to form a permanent, common life should be protected by a separate law under the premise that the definition of marriage — union between a man and a woman — is not changed?” During hearings, legal experts and officials at the Ministry of Justice deemed those unconstitutional and in contradiction of Judicial Interpretation No. 748, and for this reason they very likely would have been rejected by the CEC.
To avoid such an outcome, anti-same-sex-marriage groups replaced “marriage” in the referendum questions with “marriage as regulated by the Civil Code,” which for the CEC meant that the proposers of the two referenda “clearly recognize that their referendum proposals do not preclude same-sex couples from exercising the ‘freedom of marriage’ cited in Judicial Interpretation No. 748 in the form of other laws” and “recognize the equal protection of same-sex couples’ freedom of marriage.”
In other words, the underlying statement was that, even if the two referenda passed, it by no means entails that same-sex couples would be deprived of the right to marriage as guaranteed by Judicial Interpretation No. 748.
In the Referendum Bulletin (emitted on Oct. 24 and again on Nov. 2), the Executive Yuan also explicitly stated that the right of same-sex couples to get married is protected by the Constitution, as stipulated in Judicial Interpretation No. 748, and would therefore not be affected in any way by the results of the two referendums. The Executive Yuan added that if the two referenda passed, the government would “propose to amend the same-sex-marriage-related regulations on the basis of both the referendum results and Judicial Interpretation No. 748 and submit the amendment proposals to the Legislative Yuan for review” (emphasis added).
Anti-same-sex-marriage groups railed against the Executive Yuan’s opinions as stated in the Referendum Bulletin, accusing the government of distorting the meaning of their referendum questions, which they maintain do not advocate for same-sex marriage but rather aim to propose same-sex civil partnership. The groups again emphasized their stance during a TV debate held earlier this month, arguing that Judicial Interpretation No. 748 had not granted unions by same-sex couples marriage status.
The anti-same-sex-marriage groups never imagined, as the CEC said they had, that replacing “marriage” with “marriage as regulated by the Civil Code” in their referendum questions would in any way make them recognize same-sex couples’ freedom of marriage. Notwithstanding what they told the CEC, they believe that if there is to be a separate law, it can only be a same-sex civil partnership law, not a same-sex marriage law.
Weighing in, National Taipei University Law professor Kuan Hsiao-wei has argued that the content of the proposals by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups makes their intentions “not understandable,” which under the Referendum Act would have given the CEC sufficient grounds to reject their proposals in the first place. Kuan called on the CEC to investigate whether the clarifications given by the groups for the controversial referendum proposals during the review process may have been insufficient — and if so, whether approval of their questions by the CEC may have been inappropriate.
The implications of unclear referendum proposals could be serious. If they pass on Nov. 24, for those who falsely believed they were voting against same-sex marriage of any kind, legislation permitting a separate same-sex marriage law could stoke up radical responses and political outrage. A same-sex-civil-partnership law, on the other hand, would betray the spirit of Judicial Interpretation No. 748 and the expectations of liberal groups. And if pro-same-sex-marriage groups want to challenge the constitutionality of the (possible) same-sex-civil-partnership law, the process would take years before the Constitutional Court makes a final ruling.
Earlier this month, the New Power Party said that based on an opinion poll it conducted on the referenda, 26.7 percent of respondents said they would vote “yes” to the questions proposed by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups, which was the highest among all referendum questions, save for the 56.5 percent of those who either had no clue or had no comment (the pro-same-sex-marriage proposals received only 13.1 percent). The numbers appeared to reflect social conservatism. Many respondents may have been won over by the “traditional family values” trumpeted by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups, and by the power of religious mobilization.
There is however a possibility that none of the questions will pass the threshold. Still, the number of ballots each camp garners could serve as an indicator of public sentiment, which politicians could not ignore without incurring political costs. The results of the referendums will therefore pose a great challenge to the government.
After the Constitutional Court ruling in May last year, the administration deferred final decision to a popular vote, which will likely boomerang. A political decision will have to be made after all, and it is very likely that neither camp will be able to reconcile their expectations with the government’s middle-ground approach.
Feature Photo Credit: Hsiang-wei Wang