Chi Chia-wei (left), a gay-rights activist, speaks during a press conference in Taipei after a referendum on same-sex marriage did not pass on Saturday. Photo: AFP
Chi Chia-wei (left), a gay-rights activist, speaks during a press conference in Taipei after a referendum on same-sex marriage did not pass on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Voters in Taiwan backed an anti-gay-marriage referendum on Saturday in what LGBT activists said was a devastating blow to the island’s reputation as a rights trailblazer.

The result came at the end of a dramatic evening that saw Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen resign as leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after her party suffered major defeats in key midterm polls, considered a significant blow to her prospects for re-election in 2020.

Tsai announced her resignation at a hastily called news conference in Taipei, the South China Morning Post reported.

“I hereby announce my resignation as chairwoman and shoulder responsibility,” she said. “We have learned a lesson and must reflect on ourselves as, obviously, voters have a higher expectation of us.”

In a Facebook post, Premier William Lai said he also had offered his resignation to Tsai.

“The nine-in-one elections are a vote for the public to inspect the government’s performance, and the results show the public obviously is not satisfied,” he said. “I feel sorry for this and I have offered my verbal resignation to Tsai to take political responsibility.”

However, Tsai later said she would ask Lai to stay on.

Kuomintang makes significant gains

The Beijing-friendly main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) made gains in the face of China’s increasing pressure on the island.

As well as voting for seats from village to city level, there were 10 referenda on the ballot, including pro- and anti-gay-marriage proposals.

A referendum calling for marriage only to be recognized as between a man and a woman in Taiwan’s Civil Code won more than 7 million votes, while another calling for same-sex unions to be regulated under a separate law gained more than 6 million.

Gay-rights activists had proposed that the Civil Code should give same-sex couples equal marriage rights, but only garnered 3 million votes.

“Pro-family” group the Coalition for the Happiness of our Next Generation said the win was a “victory of all people who treasure family values.”

Jennifer Lu, a spokeswoman for Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, said the group was saddened by what she described as the “absurd referendums” and blamed government “incompetence” for allowing the anti-gay-marriage votes to go ahead.

Taiwan’s top court legalized same-sex marriage in May 2017, the first place in Asia to do so, and ruled that it must be brought in within two years, but the government has made little progress in the face of opposition from conservative groups.

Although the government has clearly stated that the referendum results will not impact the court’s original decision to legalize gay marriage, LGBT campaigners worry that their newly won rights will be weakened.

With the conservative vote passing the threshold of 25% of eligible electors, under referendum law the government must take steps to reflect the result.

Tsai’s future in doubt

Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have faced a mounting backlash over domestic reforms as well as concerns about deteriorating relations with China, which still sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified.

Tsai told reporters that she would take “complete responsibility” for the defeat as she resigned as chairwoman of the party.

The KMT, which oversaw an unprecedented thaw with Beijing before Tsai took office in 2016, declared victory in 15 of 22 city and county seats, up from just six going into the election.

The DPP, which had 13 seats, won only six and lost its traditional stronghold in Kaohsiung city for the first time in 20 years.

Independent candidate Ko Wen-je was re-elected mayor of Taipei City, AFP reported.

Beijing has intensified pressure on Taiwan under Tsai, upping military drills, poaching diplomatic allies and successfully convincing international businesses to list the island as part of China on their websites.

The DPP is traditionally pro-independence and Tsai has refused to acknowledge Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is part of “one China,” unlike her KMT predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.

Ahead of the vote, Tsai and DPP officials repeatedly accused China of meddling in the lead-up to the elections by operating a ‘fake news’ campaign. Beijing has denied the allegations

Ahead of the vote, Tsai and DPP officials repeatedly accused China of meddling in the lead-up to the elections by operating a “fake news” campaign. Beijing has denied the allegations.

Taiwan’s Investigation Bureau also said it was probing Chinese influence on the elections through campaign funding of candidates.

The KMT – which lost the leadership and its majority in parliament two years ago as the public feared it had moved too close to Beijing – framed the election as a vote of no confidence in Tsai ahead of the vote, vowing to boost the economy and promote peaceful relations with China.

Some analysts said the defeat ruled Tsai out as a candidate for the presidency in 2020.

But others said she might still run, in the absence of an obvious successor.

Observers put the results down to anger over pension cuts and labor reforms, including slashing the number of public holidays, as well as concern that tensions with Beijing are damaging local business.

“The defeat certainly harms Tsai’s chances in 2020,” said Shih Cheng-feng, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University, who attributed the results to “widespread public discontent” over the domestic reforms.

A referendum proposing to change the name under which Taiwan competes at international sports events, which has already angered China, was defeated by 5.5 million votes, with 4.6 million in favor.

With reporting from Agence France-Presse

Voters line up to cast their ballots in Taipei on Saturday. Photo: AFP

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