Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.
Image credit: DSC_3101 by 玄 史生/Flickr, license: public domain
On 16 January, Taoyuan city councillor Wang Hao-yu of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was revoked by a whopping 84,582 ‘in-favour’ ballots. This was a staggering contrast to the 16,292 ballots received that won him his re-election merely two years prior. This election makes Wang the first city councillor from one of Taiwan’s six special municipalities to be recalled. More importantly, one can tentatively make a case that this is an important success for opposition parties such as the Kuomintang (KMT) and other pan-blue parties (e.g., People First Party) regaining political clout against the incumbent DPP government. This begs the question: is Wang’s recall vote something, nothing, or everything?
Wang’s recall should not be taken lightly by the ruling DPP government. Although the election per se may not bear equal political significance compared to the case of former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu’s recall last June, it is the first in a series of political campaigns launched by pan-blue parties for the sole purpose of retaliation. Notably recent and ongoing campaigns to recall politicians belonging to pan-green parties include Kaohsiung city councillor Huang Jie (formerly New Power Party, NPP), legislators Chen Po-wei (Taiwan State-building Party), and Wu Szu-yao (DPP).
There are three main points that one can take away from Wang’s recall vote. Firstly, it is evident that recall elections have become the new frontline of power struggles between pan-green parties led by the DPP and pan-blue parties headed by the KMT. For instance, after conveying their respect and acceptance of the outcome of Wang’s recall, DPP speaker Yen Jo-Fang criticised the KMT for escalating tensions between pan-green and pan-blue supporters in the local election. The DPP’s rationale is that civil society groups initiated han’s recall election (i.e., We Care) in Kaohsiung with little involvement of the DPP in the process. On the other hand, although a non-profit organisation also initiated Wang’s recall—i.e. Hope Media Foundation—the main criticism was directed to KMT chairman Chiang Chi-chen’s decision to state his support for Wang’s recall officially. He also agreed to provide necessary resources to support the campaign during its final stages. Arguably, one can argue that Chiang’s explicit support for Wang’s recall has crossed the fine line of promoting residents to execute their civic rights, making the election the locus of contestation between the DPP and the KMT. Consequently, this has prompted President Tsai Ing-wen, who also serves as the DPP’s chairwoman, to change the Party’s conventional passive strategy for the recall election of Huang Jie during the DPP’s Central Standing Committee meeting late January.
The second point is whether one can regard Wang’s recall as the first sign of DPP’s potential downfall and the resurrection of the KMT? The short answer is no. Instead, Wang’s recall should be attributed to the lack of support from within the DPP.
First, one must take into consideration that Wang is merely a newcomer in the DPP. In fact, Wang’s decision to swiftly join the DPP after announcing his departure from the Green Party in 2020 alienated him from his supporters. Second, Wang has openly expressed how he loathed the DPP for most of his political career to date and often entangled himself in political and social controversies. For instance, during his first campaign for city councillor in 2014, Wang openly stated on social media that ‘many DPP members are scum’. Additionally, whilst campaigning for his re-election in 2018, Wang also heavily criticised several DPP politicians such as Peng Tien-fu and his son Peng Chun-hao, who possess substantial political clout in the Taoyuan area. These previous actions have disincentivised the DPP to mobilise their local supporters in the recall vote. The lack of support from within the DPP during the campaign was later confirmed by Wang himself a few weeks later.
Wang has also done a disservice to himself by instigating a series of social and political controversies. To point out a few, Wang was notably involved in an altercation with NPP members after referring it as a ‘garbage party’ that deceives youngsters with idealistic ideas to lure their support. Perhaps most infamously, Wang instigated a public outcry with his untimely comment regarding the passing of former Speaker of the Kaohsiung City Council Hsu Kun-yuan hours after Han’s mayoral recall vote. Undoubtedly, the incident became a catalyst for his recall. Thus, although Wang is a member of the DPP whereas Huang Jie is not, the outcome of the latter’s recall election is a better indicator to assess the respective trajectories of the DPP and the KMT.
The final point concerns how revoking politicians may become normalised in Taiwan’s political scene. One can argue that an advantage of such development is that it would keep politicians in check, especially if there is a broad consensus that a certain individual is deemed unfit to remain in office. In theory, this would soften the principal-agent dilemma in which the latter acts upon its own self-interest rather than the mandate bestowed to him/her when running for office. On the other hand, it may lead to the exploitation of Taiwan’s direct democracy, particularly in the current epoch of disinformation when extremist views are often amplified. Under this circumstance, if elected officials are unable to maintain a certain degree of integrity and/or possess expertise in any given policy areas that allow professional judgements, this would likely lead to the emergence of populist politics and threaten Taiwan’s political stability.
To avoid descending into populism, some observers have suggested that policymakers deliberate on increasing the Central Election Commission’s capacity. This aims to enable the CEC to conduct independent assessments on whether a legitimate foundation exists for recall applications in the future. What can be certain is that with more recall votes scheduled to take place, this would allow for more case studies to be investigated and open the floor for discourse.
Wang’s recall is ‘something’ insofar as providing insights on how to recall elections have escalated into the power struggles between the DPP and the KMT at the national stage. In addition, it also sheds light on the potential benefits and risks entailed in recall attempts, especially when it becomes normalised in Taiwan’s political scene. Nevertheless, it is ‘nothing’ insomuch as identifying the DPP’s respective power status and the KMT to date. Instead, the failed attempt to recall Huang Jie from office this past weekend shows that the asymmetrical power distribution between the DPP and the KMT still persists, though the margin has surely decreased.
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