News Analysis

Taiwan’s politicians override referendum on same-sex marriage

Six months after Taiwan’s citizens voted decisively in a national referendum to affirm traditional marriage, the Legislative Yuan, its unicameral parliament, approved same-sex marriage – becoming the first country in Asia to do so. Immediately, Taiwan began to recognise same-sex unions too, as its Constitutional Court had effectively ordered it to in 2017.

The island’s tiny Catholic Church was part of an interfaith coalition that led the successful referendum effort last November.

So why did the Yuan reject public sentiment? Fr Otfried Chen, secretary-general of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference (Taiwan’s episcopal conference), told the Catholic Herald there were several reasons.

First, the design of the referendum was “problematic”. Although 72.5 per cent of voters said “yes” to the question, “Do you agree that marriage defined in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?” they also voted 61 per cent for a special law to protect “the rights of same-sex couples”. That allowed legislators to claim,“You asked us to make a special law!” Fr Chen explained.

Second, President Tsai Ing-wen was determined to pass the law. Elected in January 2016 as Taiwan’s first female president, she made same-sex marriage a signature issue. Tsai’s political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), controls the Yuan.

“Politics has only one currency –votes,” said Fr Chen. Tsai “dared to make this gamble” to win over younger voters, who tend to favour same-sex marriage. Yet Taiwan is an ageing society with the world’s lowest birthrate. To advance the common good, the state should encourage young people to have families, said the priest.

With presidential elections six months away, Taiwan’s major opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), is already rallying against Tsai for ignoring the popular vote. The Beijing-friendly KMT beat the DPP in local elections held with the referendum.

In a video made to encourage fellow Catholics, Fr Chen recommends a positive approach: we must evangelise, he says, by “showing the joy of a Christian family”.