Another first for democracy in Taiwan
The successful recall of Han Kuo-yu illustrates a robust democratic system and an engaged populous but there are risks of future misuse of the recall mechanism and an over-concentration of political power
By Duncan Levine
Han Kuo-yu, mayor of Kaohsiung and 2020 presidential candidate for Taiwan’s Chinese nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) party, was officially recalled in a vote on 6 June 2020. As the first mayoral recall in Taiwanese history, it marks another milestone in Taiwan’s democratic evolution, which took off following the lifting of martial law in 1987, held its first democratic presidential election in 1996 and has since gone through three peaceful transfers of power between the two largest political parties. Organisers of the Han recall are hailing the significance of non-partisan civil society groups being able to democratically remove a democratically-elected official for neglect of duty. Han and his supporters, on the other hand, have labelled the entire recall process as a politically-motivated smear campaign. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, there is no doubt that the recall represents a significant setback for the opposition KMT, which, just 18 months ago, was celebrating Han’s victory in Kaohsiung, which is a ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stronghold. Han’s spectacular rise and precipitous fall have revealed much about the man himself but also about the state of Taiwan’s democratic landscape.
Han began his political career in 1990 as a Taipei County Councillor, and went on to serve as a legislator from 1993-2002. After an unsuccessful bid for a fourth term as legislator, he left the political scene for almost a decade. During this time, he founded a private school with his wife in Yunlin County in southern Taiwan. He later became president of the state-funded Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation in 2012, but resigned five years later to run for the chairmanship of the KMT. He lost that election on 20 May 2017 to party heavy-weight Wu Den-yih. However, Han’s exposure in the KMT leadership campaign brought him back in from the political wilderness, raising his profile, and later helping him to secure the KMT’s blessing to run on the party’s ticket for mayor of Kaohsiung. So began his reinvention as a new kind of everyman politician, which he leveraged to spectacular effect in his run for mayor.
Han showed himself to be a master campaigner in that election. He managed to inspire a broad swathe of the public, in the process becoming a media rock star, constantly tailed by dozens of reporters and photographers, many of which painted a glowing picture of him. Winning the 2018 mayoral election in the pan-green stronghold of Kaohsiung was a significant upset for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It also gave great hope to the KMT that they had found a candidate able to appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate, including the youth. This explains the KMT’s eagerness to recruit Han to run as their candidate in the 2020 presidential election, even though he had only been in office as mayor for a few months.
Han’s decision to run for president proved to be a spectacular strategic blunder, for him personally as well as the KMT. In many ways, Han has been the victim of his own hubris. In his mayoral campaign, he made exaggerated promises such as bringing riches to Kaohsiung residents, being able to persuade Disney to build a theme park and constructing a Ferris wheel along the banks of the city’s Love River. While writing blank cheques is of course a typical strategy for many candidates running for election anywhere, when he took office, Han turned off many of those who voted for him with his continued use of empty rhetoric without substance to back it up. He also proved to be a poor communicator, unable to answer questions from often hostile opposition city councillors and was frequently accused of not doing his homework in dealing with administrative matters and engaging in publicity stunts as a substitute for real action. His brief tenure was also marked by numerous gaffes. But the decision to run for president was seen by many Kaohsiung residents as the ultimate betrayal, which prompted a coordinated backlash against Han by civil society groups We Care Kaohsiung, Citizens Moving Action and the Taiwan Statebuilding Party.
The KMT must also shoulder some of the responsibility for succumbing to pressure from Han’s supporters to endorse his run for president just months after securing a hard-won victory in an opposition strong-hold. According to political risk analyst Ross Feingold, commenting for this article, “one of the KMT’s peculiar capabilities throughout the party’s history is its inability to capitalise on success, and to turn success into failure. Following successful local elections in November 2018, the Kuomintang quickly turned 2019 into a political disaster that included an inability to unite behind a competitive candidate for president, a controversial presidential primary, the victory of a flawed candidate (Han) in the primary, a party list for at-large seats that included nominees disliked by the public, and poorly run presidential and legislative campaigns that resulted in an election day disaster in January 2020.”
Besides rising antipathy in Kaohsiung, Han’s presidential campaign, though initially promising, became increasingly dogged by controversies, including his involvement in buying luxury properties.
Then, there is also the not insignificant factor of timing. This could also not have been worse for Han and better for the DPP as it coincided with rising antagonism towards Beijing, spurred partly by massive protests in Hong Kong, starting in June 2019 and running on and off for the duration of the presidential campaign. The protests against the proposed Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government, which, if enacted, would have allowed extradition to mainland China, served as a stark reminder to voters in Taiwan of the rights and freedoms many of them had hitherto taken for granted. While Han’s position on cross-Strait relations was more or less aligned with those of his party, mainstream opinion in Taiwan has shifted in recent years, especially among the youth. In particular, polls consistently show a growing mistrust of Beijing authorities and opposition to unification with China among Taiwanese of all generations.
According to Brian Hioe, editor at New Bloom Magazine, commenting for this article, Han was originally elected as mayor of Kaohsiung in 2018 with the support of an unexpectedly large number of young people, as a result of which some viewed Han as a political candidate able to change the KMT’s image. “This was especially significant because the KMT has struggled in its outreach to young people in the years since the 2014 Sunflower Movement.” However, Hioe believes that the youth were turned off by Han’s actions in the presidential campaign, notably his visit to China’s liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau, which led some voters to worry that in trying to build warm relations with China, he may compromise Taiwan's sovereignty, security and democracy. “Instead of working to secure the youth vote, Han instead primarily leveraged on a political base of older, traditionalist members of the pan-blue camp, leaning heavily towards ROC nationalism”, according to Hioe.
Although Han was leading in opinion polls at the start of his presidential campaign, by more or less giving up on canvassing the youth, Han came to be associated with the most conservative members of the pan-blue camp, some of which are staunchly pro-unification or hold socially conservative views, such as being opposed to gay marriage. According to Hioe, recall organisers cited allegations that Han was backed by China, as observed in Chinese disinformation used to raise his profile leading up to 2020 elections, and past meetings between him and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. In contrast, Tsai Ing-wen’s support and pushing through of marriage equality reforms, which are overwhelmingly supported by the youth in Taiwan, combined with a much tougher line supporting Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedoms, helped to boost Tsai’s support rate among the youth as well as swing voters in the 2020 presidential election. This was one of the main contributing factors, on top of the KMT’s poorly-run campaign, which helped to turn the tables and propel Tsai to victory in the January 2020 presidential election.
So what does Han’s recall mean for Kaohsiung, the KMT and Taiwan? For a start, Kaohsiung will get a new acting mayor, appointed by the Executive Yuan. A by-election will then be held within three months to elect a new mayor. It is of course highly likely that a candidate from the ruling DPP will win. According to Ross Feingold, this will certainly mean the replacement of political appointees across the many bureaus in the municipal government, regardless of whether or not such persons came from outside government or are career civil servants appointed to their positions by Han. In addition, Feingold points out that the new Kaohsiung city government will certainly emphasise to the public its ability to work more seamlessly with the central government that is also led by the DPP.
As for the impact on the KMT, how best to deal with Han and his supporters poses a dilemma for the party. For the moment, Han has said he will not contest the recall vote or run for any other office. But it remains to be seen what he will do after a cooling off period. Brian Hioe remarked that “with new chair Johnny Chiang promising internal reform by the KMT, the KMT is likely to downplay Han's role in the party and try to downplay the recall result as a political defeat. This is likely to lead to Han loyalists within the KMT viewing Chiang as compromising too much to the pan-green camp, in refusing to back Han to the hilt.”
Recall organisers have pointed out that the number of people who voted to recall Han (939,090) was larger than the number of Kaohsiung residents who voted for him both in his election as mayor in 2018 (892,545 or 54% of voters) and as a presidential candidate in January 2020 (where he received only 610,896 or 35% of the Kaohsiung vote compared to President Tsai’s 1.09 million or 62%). This may be true, but with only about 42% of the electorate participating in the recall, there is no way of knowing what portion of the 58% that did not vote remain Han supporters, since Han specifically urged his supporters to boycott the recall vote.
Moreover, even if we acknowledge a decline in Han’s level of support in Kaohsiung, it may be too soon to consign Han to the history books. It is likely that he still commands a considerable level of support in the pan-blue camp nationally, based on winning over 5.5 million votes (38% of the total vote count) in the presidential election. KMT leaders have understandably been cautious in their comments about the recall, refraining from assigning blame to Han personally and postponing any decision on his future role on the grounds of giving him time and space to figure out his next move. The KMT’s most likely next standard-bearer, New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih, for example, has wished him well and hinted that Han may be given another chance to serve the country.
Yet, allowing Han too large a role in the party could hamper the KMT’s efforts to broaden its electoral base. According to Brian Hioe, “efforts by KMT Chairman Chiang to reach out to young people seem to have already run aground to some extent, with the departure of some younger members of the KMT, and reliance on politicians that were those that alienated the KMT from Taiwanese young people to begin with, such as former President Ma Ying-jeou”.
This is really the existential challenge for the KMT. It may already have lost the next generation. Its future survival depends on reinventing itself to appeal to a broader base that includes the youth, who tend to be Taiwan-centric and are unwilling to compromise on what they see as essential freedoms. This will be a difficult task, to say the least.
As for the impact on Taiwan’s democratic landscape, according to Ross Feingold, “a significant takeaway from the recall is that such efforts can succeed, even in a municipality with a large population and land area. Previous efforts to recall elected politicians in Taiwan had failed, including in urban Legislative Yuan constituencies that were relatively small in land area and where it was easier to reach voters for the purposes of campaigning. Thus, this recall proves that committed activists can satisfy the multi-stage requirements of the recall process and prompt a vote”.
The success of this recall motion has led to concerns that the recall mechanism is open to abuse. In 2017, Huang Kuo-chang of the New Power Party (NPP) was the first politician (a legislator) targeted for a recall in 2017 after the thresholds needed to hold a recall were lowered in 2016 to 25% of all voters with 50% of them (or 12.5% of the total electorate) having to vote in favour of recall for it to succeed. There is a certain irony that Huang and the NPP were among those who had pushed for the lowering of thresholds to hold a recall to begin with. While the recall against Huang failed, as Brian Hioe points out, the fact that Huang was targeted by well-funded conservative Christian groups who were not actually from his home constituency of Xizhi, primarily for his support of gay marriage and not because of local issues, is illustrative of how the recall mechanism could be abused. It would indeed be a case of their own spawn coming back to bite them if Han’s supporters follow through on threats to launch recall motions against pan-green politicians who had been vocal supporters of the Han recall campaign.
When asked to comment on this question, Ross Feingold replied “The successful recall of a large city mayor will inspire individuals and civil society organisations throughout Taiwan to initiate recall efforts across the range of elected positions including legislators, municipal executives in the special municipalities and counties, city or county councillors, and at the neighbourhood leader level. Most of these efforts, especially if they are spurious, will fail to obtain a sufficient number of petition signatures necessary to hold a vote. If, in the aftermath of the Han recall voters across Taiwan now find it appropriate to recall elected officeholders because the target failed to fulfil his campaign promises or holds policy views that are no longer popular, then, notwithstanding the lack of wrongdoing such as a corruption scandal, nepotism or influence peddling, such will not be considered spurious in Taiwan even if it is [considered] spurious in other countries.” Bottom line, we should expect more recall motions in future, not always for legitimate reasons, although most of them are likely to fail.
Han’s rise and fall should also serve as a cautionary tale for politicians. National Dong Hwa University professor Shih Cheng-feng was quoted as saying that the recall should sound a cautionary note to politicians who are inclined to overreach. “Politicians should keep their feet firmly on the ground and fulfil their promises to the electorate”, he said. After Han’s recall, it would be very surprising to see another incumbent mayor quitting before their term is over in order to run for president. They would also be wise to take note of citizens’ intolerance for incompetence and tardiness. If they are not seen to be devoting their best efforts to doing their jobs, they risk being booted out of office before their terms are over.
Shih also said the results of Saturday’s election carried a message for voters that they “must be more discerning and pay greater attention to what politicians are promising”. Some voters may indeed be chastened by the experience with Han. However, it would be unrealistic to expect things to change overnight in a world so often mesmerised by glamour and glitz and where voters are more easily won over by winning personalities than sensible policies. There may never be a remedy for this but education, such as civics lessons, starting a young age would help.
But another important point about Taiwan’s political landscape is that the KMT is still the official opposition, a position that seems unlikely to be challenged by any of the other smaller parties, at least in the near term. The party has been severely tested by the rise of Han and his supporters and so far it has failed to counter claims by its opponents that it is out of touch with mainstream opinion and too close to China at the expense of Taiwan and its citizens. Its presidential election defeat and the Han recall have left the party weakened which in turn leaves Taiwan’s democratic environment poorer. A strong opposition that has a realistic chance of regaining power is the mark of a healthy democracy. It provides alternative ideas and keeps the ruling party honest and on its toes. Without it, there is a risk of complacency and inertia setting in. Unless and until there is a viable alternative, democracy would be better served if the KMT found a way past its current difficulties and offered a new vision for the future of Taiwan that is appealing to its voters.