Taipei, Nov. 26 (CNA) Taiwan could have become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year, but the way the politicians have dealt with the issue have allowed anti-gay rights groups to gain momentum and throw the issue into disarray, analysts said.
"This was really a missed opportunity for gay marriage with equal rights," Michael Danielsen, chairman of Taiwan Corner, a Denmark-based non-governmental organization that focuses on Taiwan, told CNA in a recent email interview.
"It was clear that the issue could have been solved in the Legislative Yuan in late 2017."
He was responding to the results of Saturday's referendums that saw passage of three proposals seen as opposing gay rights by big margins.
A question defending the Civil Code definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was backed by 72.5 percent of valid votes cast, and another on protecting the rights of same-sex couples in ways other than in the Civil Code received 61.1 percent support.
The third question, on excluding legally mandated homosexual-related education in schools was backed by 67.4 percent of the electorate.
Two other proposals, submitted by gay rights advocates after opponents of same sex marriage forced the issue to go to a public vote, were rejected by similarly big margins by voters.
The proposals called for the Civil Code to be amended to allow same-sex marriage and for the inclusion of gender equality education, including homosexual-related education, in school curriculums.
The results have further energized the opponents of same-sex marriage.
The Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of the Family, a main initiator of the anti-gay rights proposals, said after the results became clear on election night that it will never support legalization of same-sex marriage, not even by enacting a new separate law.
Dafydd Fell, director of the Center of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, University of London, said Taiwan's two main parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), deserve criticism for their handling of this issue.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP promised during her campaign prior to the presidential election in January 2016 to push for marriage equality.
Taiwan then made great strides in trying to achieve same-sex marriage starting in late 2016.
Several bills sponsored by lawmakers across party lines, including amendments to the Civil Code, were reviewed in the Legislature, in which the DPP has a clear majority.
The Constitutional Court also ruled on May 24, 2017 that the definition of marriage in the Civil Code violated the right to freedom of marriage and the right to equality and ordered that the law be amended or another law introduced to legalize same-sex marriage within two years.
But there was also increasing pressure on Tsai from the party's traditional supporters, including the Presbyterian Church, to block same-sex marriage legislation, and as a result, the issue has largely been marginalized on the Tsai administration's agenda.
Danielsen, who spoke with the DPP and the KMT late in 2017, felt the issue could have been settled then because some lawmakers from both the DPP and KMT were willing to vote for the measure, which would have delivered the message that it was an issue with broad support.
Fell said Tsai could have led the DPP in supporting marriage equality legislation but instead chose to take a passive stance.
"Tsai set out her position in the 2016 campaign and was not able to fully push same sex marriage through. By being cautious, she lost original supporters but also allowed the conservative movement to gain momentum," Fell said.
Danielsen agreed, saying Tsai left her supporters very disillusioned on this issue, especially among younger people.
Asked if the next presidential and legislative elections, which are only 14 months away, will again be a factor in delaying marriage equality legislation, Danielsen said "politicians need to do what is morally right to do and not what their voters want."
"We cannot move society ahead by doing what people want all the time," Danielsen said. "It is morally right to allow full and equal rights for homosexuals in Taiwan and not make Taiwanese homosexuals second-class citizens."
The handling of the same-sex marriage issue aside, the DPP was also criticized for taking electoral gains into consideration when it executed a death-row prisoner for the first time in August. The move, according to EU representative to Taiwan Madeleine Majorenko, was very disappointing to Brussels.
"The strategy on gaining votes on both issues failed totally because this is not the issue for the Taiwanese in general; it is the economy," Danielsen said.
"The DPP needs to get out on the streets, and it needs to engage more broadly with civil society in Taiwan and internationally."
Fell said the referendums will create some major challenges for the DPP, especially on how to deal with marriage equality as the Constitutional Court deadline approaches.
"Tsai will need to be bold on this issue," Fell said. "Politics is about making hard choices."
There are votes to be gained and lost on issues like marriage equality but it would definitely help Tsai with younger voters, and any politician who can resolve the mess should get some credit, Fell said.
If Taiwan were to become the first country in Asia to legalize same sex marriage, the impact on the country's soft power and international recognition would be very large, Fell argued.
"It would be far greater than the traditional diplomacy goals like formal diplomatic relations."
Fell also put some blame on the KMT for causing the disarray.
By encouraging its supporters to back the anti-gay marriage proposal, the KMT was putting punishing Tsai ahead of the potential to enhance Taiwan's international space, he said.
At the same time, the referendum results showed that Taiwan's progressive civil society still needs to work harder to get its message through to mainstream Taiwanese society, Fell said.
Timothy Rich, an expert on Taiwan and an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, said the results present a challenge to Tsai and the DPP, who were already dragging their feet on revising the Civil Code.
"I think supporters of legalization may have underestimated the opposition or the extent in which views on legalization were still fluid among some groups," he said.