Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.
On 6 June 2020, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu suffered a devastating defeat in the recall election with almost 940,000 ballots agreeing to remove him from office after just 18 months since his inauguration. Although recall elections are not unprecedented in Taiwan and certainly not the first time for Han, his defeat makes him the highest-level elected official to be removed in a recall vote in the country’s history. What are the underlying reasons for Han’s abrupt rise and fall over two years? What are the political implications of Han’s recall for not only the Kuomintang (KMT) but also the development of Taiwan’s democracy?
There are three points that one can take away from the outcome of Kaohsiung’s recall election. The first is that Han’s defeat can be attributed to a series of his miscalculated political decisions. The ascendancy of Han in Taiwan’s political scene and the so-called ‘Han Wave’ that gained momentum in 2018 can be directed to his ability to connect with the general public unconventionally. Although his antics and dim-witted policy ideas (e.g. Love Ferris Wheel) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, his distinctive approach—amongst many other factors—enabled him to end the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) twenty-year governance in Kaohsiung in the 2018 mayoral election.
Yet, Han’s fortunes turned after he decided to bid for the presidency. Although having only taken office for less than five months, Han’s decision inevitably raised doubts concerning his commitment to the residents of Kaohsiung, and credibility as a politician. His infamous “yes, I do” announcement was considered as betrayal and abandonment by certain residents in Kaohsiung, which allowed the non-governmental and grass-root organisation, WeCare Kaohsiung, to initiate the petition to recall him. Han’s unapologetic stance on his decision throughout his presidential campaign did not help his case. This resulted in a significant reduction of votes won in Kaohsiung from 892,545 votes in the 2018 election to 610,896 votes during the presidential election earlier this year. Even after his defeat in January, Han’s reluctant and widely-perceived disingenuous apology for his departure further deteriorated his relationship with residents. To fend off these negative sentiments, Han and his government began advocating for strenuous efforts in improving Kaohsiung’s public infrastructure, including smoothing roads and cleaning the sewer system for flood prevention. Nevertheless, the flood in Kaohsiung a week before the recall election became one of the final factors that crashed Han’s chance to defend his position in the election.
The more profound political implication of Han’s recall vote is that it is a clear indication that Taiwan’s democracy has further consolidated. Research on the “Third Wave” have identified different phases that countries would experience when and after transforming into a democratic state (e.g. stasis, consolidation). Although one can argue that Taiwan is an already mature democracy, given that it fulfils certain criteria—e.g. Huntington’s two turnover test—we have witnessed some concerning anti-democratic conducts on Han’s part throughout the recall campaign. For example, Han and his government adopted several tactics to interfere with his recall vote in the hope of reducing the turnout under the legal requirement of 25 per cent. Instances include the Kaohsiung City Electoral Commission, headed by Han’s deputy mayor Chen Hsiung-wen, putting pressure on schools to not allow classrooms to be used as polling stations. This resulted in a reduction almost half of polling stations that were available in previous elections. Although the Central Election Commission was able to ensure all 1823 polling stations were in place for the recall vote, the locations of 330 polling stations were changed. Han also made a public announcement on 16 May to discourage his supporters from turning out to polling stations, another obvious strategy attempting to reduce the turnout. Perhaps the most apparent misconduct is when evidence surfaced that Han’s ally and the City governments’ Civil Affairs Bureau Director-General Tsao Huan-jung informed the City’s village chiefs to persuade residents in their neighbourhoods to “not vote” and “monitor polling stations to put pressure on people voting to recall Han”. It is essential to note that these community leaders regularly interact with residents. Hence, these village chiefs are thus mandated to distribute notification posts for elections. Nevertheless, it aroused suspicions when a high number of cases were reported that many residents either did not receive their mails or had information errors (e.g. location of polling stations).
Han’s anti-democratic conducts changed the central theme of the recall election from one that was centred on Kaohsiung residents’ negative sentiments toward him to one that is against the enshrined values of freedom and democracy in Taiwan. In fact, President Tsai Ing-wen had refrained from explicitly expressing her support for the recall campaign on multiple occasions to avoid the escalation of conflict between the ruling DPP and the KMT on this issue. Yet, Han’s anti-democratic eventually prompted Tsai to pass a resolution within the DPP urging Kaohsiung residents to exercise their civil rights to vote. Also, in response to Han’s actions, WeCare Kaohsiung mobilised supporters to rally for the “freedom of fear” from Formosa Boulevard Metro Station on the eve of the recall election: the historical site that possesses significant symbolic meaning to Taiwan’s democratisation movement due to the 1979 Formosa Incident. Accordingly, Han’s recall can also be regarded as a clear message that shows the determination of Kaohsiung’s residents to safeguard values of democracy.
Finally, Han’s defeat should act as another wake-up call for the KMT to implement bold reforms if it ever desires to become the ruling party again. What is evident throughout the recall election campaign is that aside from KMT’s existing problem of losing touch with the younger generation, the party’s stance on Han’s anti-democratic conducts may be more destructive. The reform-minded KMT chairman Chiang Chi-chen, who just won the by-election this March, adopted a low-profile approach to counter the recall campaign. The strategy was not only ineffective but also gave the impression that the party fully supports Han’s actions. For instance, after Han urged his supporters not to vote in the recall election but monitor polling stations, Chiang publicly stated that the KMT will “fully assist Han’s actions”. Another example is when KMT legislator Chen Yu-jen voiced her support for Han. She called-for KMT supporters to stand outside of polling stations on election day to spy on voters. However, Chiang did not openly state that the party was against these anti-democratic actions. Hence when the main theme of the recall election transformed into a campaign to protect Taiwan’s democracy, it once again placed the KMT at an unfavourable position.
Han’s recall may have been a personal defeat for himself, but it has undoubtedly brought collateral damage to the KMT. Chiang’s inability to distance the KMT from Han throughout the recall election campaign demonstrates that KMT’s existing institutional arrangement still empowers radical KMT party members (e.g. Huang Fu-hsiung faction) and is denying any possible reform. With less than one year on his tenure for as KMT’s chairman, Chiang faces severe challenges to revive the party. These include readjusting the party’s cross-strait policy, recruiting new and young party members, and reforming KMT’s institutional arrangements for decision-making. If failed, the one-hundred-year-old political party may face the inevitable consequence of being marginalised in Taiwan’s political landscape and eventually wither away.
Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on twitter @DrHsiehCC.