Taiwan’s equal marriage momentous, but best seen as Tsai’s final achievement

Same-sex marriage isn’t universally popular and it won’t help Tsai Ing-wen retain the presidency, so it makes sense to bow out now and let William Lai take the mantle

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(CNA photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- Last Friday was a momentous day in the history of Taiwan.

It was on Friday, May 17 that the Legislative Yuan finally passed legislation permitting same-sex marriage in a country that has long seen itself as a bastion of human rights – in stark contrast to the Communist regime next door.

It is a moment that all Taiwanese should be celebrating. And many did. The streets around the Parliament building were heaving with gay rights activists and supporters all eager to be there on such a landmark occasion.

The new law made headlines around the world with democratic leaders lining up to praise Taiwan and its DPP government. Needless to say, Communist China made a ham-fisted effort to claim the credit.

An absurd tweet from the Communist propaganda rag, the People’s Daily stated that, “Local lawmakers in #Taiwan, China, have legalized same-sex marriage in a first for Asia, according to local media reports.”

It might seem odd that a country where gay rights are routinely repressed might want to claim credit for such a move, but that would be to underestimate the frankly ridiculous lengths Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpieces will go to try and perpetuate their “One China” myth.

The tweet drew global ridicule. The world is finally beginning to cotton on to the brutality and repressive nature of the Communist regime in China. No-one was falling for such a pathetically flawed piece of PR.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) is getting rather good at mocking the CCP on Twitter and he quickly posted a retort stating, quite rightly, that, “The bill was passed by our national parliament & will be signed by the president soon. Democratic #Taiwan is a country in itself & has nothing to do with authoritarian #China.”

He then secured some headlines of his own by adding, again quite rightly, that People’s Daily is “a commie brainwasher and it sucks.”

After the vote in the Legislative Yuan, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) tweeted that, “We took a big step towards true equality, and made Taiwan a better country.” Few could argue with these sentiments but the truth is that the new law could damage her hopes of winning re-election next year.

While many in Taiwan strongly support equal marriage, there is still a vociferous portion of the population who oppose it. It is a deeply divisive issue, as was illustrated last November when two separate referendum questions went against equal marriage.

Fortunately, the ruling of Taiwan’s Constitutional Court that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional superseded these votes, but the referendums undoubtedly made the issue much more complicated.

Opposition to equal marriage is primarily from elderly, more conservative members of Taiwanese society. It is this demographic who are already alienated from Tsai thanks to her public sector pensions reforms, which, while necessary, have been wildly unpopular and have taken money out of the pockets of many of these people.

This same demographic is also hugely influenced by the fake news and propaganda emanating from Communist China and widely circulating on Taiwan’s social media (and indeed the mainstream media). These people are easily dismissed as being elderly and out of touch with the real world. This is true, but their votes are worth just as much as those of a young voter and they are angry.

They are angry with the DPP, yes, but mostly, they are angry with Tsai personally. Talking to elderly voters in cities like Kaohsiung, which you will recall the DPP lost for the first time in 20 years last November, there is no avoiding the fact they hold Tsai directly responsible for those policies they dislike.

The equal marriage legislation is just another stick to beat her with. Indeed, after the referendums last year, they are already saying that Tsai deliberately ignores the will of the people.

Of course, this line conveniently overlooks the ruling of the Constitutional Court, but Tsai’s KMT opponents are more than happy to jump on the band-wagon. The result is yet more damage to her chances of winning second term.

Tsai could argue that this group are never going to vote for her anyway, so why should she worry. She is right. But in the last presidential elections, many of these people did vote for her. This time, they will be lining up to vote for Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), Terry Gou (郭台銘), or anyone they think has a fighting chance of beating her.

Tsai also cannot rely on the votes of the young, pro-equal-marriage voters either. Many of them are disappointed that she hasn't been more vocal in her support of marriage equality since assuming office.

Many feel she sat on the sidelines and allowed the Legislative Yuan and the courts to make the running rather than showing leadership and courage in her convictions. They are also disappointed that marriage equality has come in the form of an easily-reversible new piece of legislation rather than an amendment to the country’s constitution.

Tsai has done the right thing in letting marriage equality become law in Taiwan. It will be part of her legacy as president. But the brutal truth is that while it was right, it will also damage her politically.

This is damage she can ill-afford in her current parlous predicament. It will also add fuel to the fire of those who argue that she should step aside for a DPP candidate who is not tarnished in the eyes of a significant proportion of the electorate.

Equal marriage will, of course, be one of Tsai's great achievements, but unless she really wants her time in office to end in electoral embarrassment; unless she really wants to usher in a populist KMT president who is almost certain to roll back marriage equality as well as move Taiwan much closer to Communist China, she should also see it as a fitting finale to her presidency.

It is a suitable high-note to announce that she will not run for president again and instead will stand aside and throw her full weight behind William Lai. He is a candidate less tarnished by her controversial legislative steps and more likely to give the DPP a fighting chance of winning the presidency next year.