Taiwan Election Postmortem Part II: Conservatives Prevail Across Ten Referendum Questions
Alongside the contentious “nine-in-one” local elections held on Nov. 24, 2018, Taiwanese voters were also presented with a list of ten questions on a separate referendum ballot received at polling stations the same day. Voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals to enshrine same-sex marriage rights as part of the Civil Code and to alter the name of its Olympic team from the current “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan,” among other sweeping conservative victories at the ballot box.
Under the provisions of the Referendum Act as amended in January 2018, a referendum must have a turnout of 25 percent of eligible voters and a majority of votes cast to be considered valid. The final list of questions were approved by Oct. 23, with five of the ten questions dealing with matters related to same-sex marital rights and educational materials.
The results of the referendum questions point towards an upswing in conservative voter turnout, which analysts suggest may have also benefited the more pro-PRC KMT in the accompanying local elections.
On matters related to the island’s energy production and energy security, voters assented to questions calling for a reduction in energy generation by coal-firing thermal power plants (Question 7) and halting construction of new coal-fired thermal power plants (Question 8). Additionally, voters assented to a question seeking to repeal a planned phase-out of nuclear energy generation on the island by 2025 (Question 16). Taiwan’s Cabinet, in response, announced the scrapping of the 2025 nuclear-free goal on Dec. 6.
Voters also supported a continued ban on food imports from the five northeastern prefectures of Japan affected by or bordering the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Chiba; Question 9) — a decision that has already caused some diplomatic friction between Taipei and Tokyo.
A proposal to change the name of Taiwan’s national sports teams competing in international competitions, including the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan” (Question 13) failed, signalling what many analysts have called the “pragmatism” of the Taiwanese electorate when it comes to cross-Strait relations.
With regards to the five questions on same-sex marriage rights and educational institutions and materials, two questions were placed on the ballot by marriage equality groups with the other three proposed by conservative and Christian right-leaning groups seeking to overturn the Constitutional Court’s May 24, 2017 ruling that instructed the government to amend existing marriage laws (namely, the Civil Code) to permit same-sex marriages.
Voters vetoed proposals to extend protection of marital rights to same-sex couples via the Civil Code (Question 14) and to implement the Gender Equality Education Act (Question 15) — providing educational curricula on “gender equality, emotional education, sex education, and same-sex education” — by almost a two-to-one margin on both questions.
In contrast, voters adopted questions restricting the definition of marriage under the Civil Code to a union between one man and one woman (Question 10); rejecting the implementation of the Gender Equality Education Act in elementary and middle schools (Question 11); and stipulating that protection of same-sex couples’ rights should be pursued “in ways other than changing the Civil Code” (Question 12). The adoption of these questions suggested a significant pushback against marriage equality efforts on the island.
While Premier Lai has announced that the government would abide by the referendum result by drafting a special law to address same-sex marriage rights instead of amending the Civil Code, the exact relationship of a referendum question to a constitutional interpretation by the Constitutional Court — the sole legal arbiter of constitutional questions — remains unclear. In a statement given in a Nov. 29 hearing of the Legislative Yuan’s Judiciary and Organic Laws Committee, Secretary-General Lu Tai-lang of the Judicial Yuan asserted that interpretations by the Constitutional Court have a coequal rank with Taiwan’s Constitution, thus binding legislators to draft laws in accordance with the Court’s legal interpretations regardless of referendum results. The Secretary-General also noted that only the Legislative Yuan can decide how to guarantee the rights and freedoms prescribed in Court interpretations.
Given the lowered bar for referendum questions to appear on the ballot, Taiwanese voters may be yet again confronted with another batch of contentious questions in the next election, which is scheduled for 2020. Taiwan United Nations Alliance has already vowed to push for a referendum question for Taipei to join the United Nations as “Taiwan” while the lingering background threat of a full-blown independence referendum may become increasingly salient in a deteriorating cross-Strait relationship.