Legislator Support for Same-Sex Marriage: The Election Connection

A look at the correlation between legislators elected on the party list and support for same-sex marriage helps us understand the challenges ahead
Timothy Rich

What explains legislator support in Taiwan for same-sex marriage legislation? As in many Western democracies, support has been largely identified with the main liberal-progressive party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). However, this leaves unexamined how the electoral system itself influences legislator positions. In particular, the mixed electoral system for the Legislative Yuan potentially creates separate incentives for those elected in districts versus those elected on the party list.

As of May of 2014, sixteen countries have allowed same-sex marriages,[1] though none in East Asia.[2] Taiwan is already viewed as comparatively more supportive of gay rights than many Asian counterparts, as sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited in employment and education and gay soldiers can openly serve.Under president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2003, the Executive Yuan proposed extending marriage laws to same-sex couples, but by 2006 this failed to clear the Legislative Yuan. Under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the High Administrative Court in 2012 postponed recognizing same-sex marriages.

Opinion polls also suggest that growing numbers of Taiwanese support same-sex marriage.For example, Chang (2013)cites four surveys from 2012 and 2013 showing support ranging from 49 to 56 percent, with opposition maxing at 37 percent. Evidence from the 2012 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS) finds that 52.5% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed to the statement “homosexuals should have the right to marry,” with only 30.1% disagreeing.[3] TSCS data also found that 47.8 percent of DPP supporters claimed to support same-sex marriage, compared to 55.7 percent for Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members, contradicting conventional wisdom.

Rather than rehash cultural arguments regarding same sex marriage legislation, I propose a focus on the electoral institutions. Based on existing research in political science, district legislators would be expected to focus on constituency opinion and its impact on re-election ambitions. Even in traditionally non-competitive districts, district legislators may shy away from stances that may undermine their support base or encourage challengers in the future. In contrast, party list legislators have to some extent political cover as they are not directly elected but rather chosen by the party and often have less of a public profile.

To identify whether stances differ by seat type, I use data from the Lobby Alliance for LGBT Human Rights, coded on May 10, which codes legislator public statements on gay marriage into three main categories: supportive, opposed, and no stance.[4] Only two legislators fall outside of these three categories. One, Ting Shou-chung (丁守中), is coded as supporting the equivalent of civil unions but not same-sex marriage. The other, Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), is coded as neutral. Excluding these two, 21 (19.1%) are labeled opposed, 52 (47.3%) as no stance, and 37 (33.6%) as supportive. I combined this with data regarding the seat type of legislators, party, gender, age, and the number of times elected.

A majority of party list legislators (56.25%) supported the legislation, compared to only 25.68% of district legislators. In contrast only one (3.13%) of party list legislators opposed the legislation, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), compared to 22.97% of district legislators. Broken down by partisanship, 70% of DPP legislators were coded as supportive with 20% coded as having no stance. Meanwhile only 14.29% of KMT legislators were coded as supportive, with 58.73% having no stance. Broken down by seat type, every DPP party list legislator was coded as supportive of same-sex marriage, compared to 55.56% of district legislators. Among the KMT, 35.71% of party list legislators were coded as supportive, compared to 8.7% of district legislators. Majorities of KMT legislators of either type (57.14% of party list, 63.04% of district) had no stance.

Furthermore, regression analysis finds a statistically significant correlation between legislators elected on the party list and support for same-sex marriage, even after controlling for being a DPP member, gender, age, and the number of times elected. While partisanship strongly correlated support, the only other variable to reach statistical significance was the party list variable. This endured whether models measured support as binary (support vs. all other options) or as a scale (opposed, no stance, support). Although preliminary, the findings suggest that the electoral rules of the Taiwan’s legislative system influence support for such reform. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a generational difference, further suggesting that simply waiting for younger legislators within the Legislative Yuan will not produce a shift on same-sex marriage positions.

Taiwan appears as one of the most likely countries in the region to pass same-sex marriage legislation, although advocates still see “an arduous road ahead for marriage equality”. The findings here suggest an otherwise overlooked hurdle. Party list seats only constitute 34 of the 113 seats in the legislature and thus winning over district legislators is crucial for same-sex marriage legislation to be approved. Furthermore, even as support within the DPP increases, such legislation is unlikely to pass without broader support among KMT legislators that to date have avoided taking a stance.

[1] These are Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom (except for Northern Ireland).

[2] Thailand appeared poised to pass a same-sex marriage bill with the two main parties (Pheu Thai and Democrat) in support before protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra administration prevented further progress.

[3] Rates of approval increase to 54.9 if those answering “don’t know” or refused to answer were dropped.

[4] Data is available at http://www.pridewatch.tw. Also see http://thinking-taiwan.com/keeping-legislators-honest-lgbt-style/


Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.

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