Democratic consolidation or political populism? A reflection on the 2021 recall elections in Taiwan

Written by Li-Ning Chen

Image credit: Wang Hao-yu recall post. License: Public domain

While being praised for excellent COVID-19 pandemic control and being ‘rediscovered’ as a crucial democratic ally against China, Taiwan, domestically, has just undergone five succeeding recall elections in less than one-and-half years. The targeted elected officials were Kaohsiung City mayor Han Kuo-Yu (Kuomintang, KMT) in 2020, as well as city councillors Wang Hao-Yu (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) and Huang Jie (Independent), and members of the Legislative Yuan Chen Po-Wei (Taiwan Statebuilding Party, TSP) and Freddy Lim (Independent) in 2021. It seems Taiwan was enjoying another peak of civic activism, resulting in a fruitful outcome of recalling Mayor Han, Councillor Wang, and Legislator Chen. These results were indeed remarkable because Han, Wang, and Chen were the first people in their respective elected positions being recalled in the democratic history of Taiwan. Yet similar attempts, which manifested in the form of ‘Appendectomy Project’ (割闌尾計畫), were all failed even at the height of 2014 Sunflower Movement. But context is everything. A retrospection of these recall petitions after former Mayor Han’s will exemplify how the seeming ‘civil activism’ pushes Taiwan further into political populism and societal divide instead of democratic consolidation.

 After Han’s curtain call from the mayoralty and a landslide victory for DPP in the by-election in late 2020, Taiwan, for a while, seemed to be able to move away from the socio-political turbulence accompanied by the dramatic rise and fall of Han. What had happened instead were the recall elections against councillors Wang of Taoyuan City and Huang of Kaohsiung City in early 2021 and in less than one month apart. Although both councillors were famous for being outspoken and critical against Han, the campaigns were soon characterized as a vindictive reaction from his supporters. 

After the surprised recall of Wang in January, DPP began to rally alongside Huang regardless of her independent political affiliation. For that, it became clear that the pan-Blue (the symbolic colour of KMT) camp would like to exploit the ‘hard-earned’ victory after the disastrous loss of the 2020 presidential election and the mayoralty. Meanwhile, for DPP, taking a backseat and wishing the whole thing would blow away with time was no longer feasible, since the ‘revenge recall’ (報復性罷免) campaign began to look like potential political guerrilla warfare. A united pan-Green (the symbolic colour of DPP) camp then kept Huang in the office with a relatively high voter turnout, approximately 42%, compared to Wang’s 28%. However, the failure did not stop another ‘citizen-led’ recall petition initiated in the same month, again, with full KMT backing, targeting another controversial political figure: Legislator Chen Po-Wei.

 Chen, nicknamed ‘3Q’ (a Taiwanese English version of ‘thank you’), was born in Kaohsiung and is famous for his firm pro-independence stance and insists on speaking Taiwanese (or Taiwanese Hokkien) during public interviews. He joined TSP in 2017, a radical left party for which its progenitor played a key role in 2014 Sunflower, and had competed for Kaohsiung city councillor election in 2018. Chen did not win, but his humorous personality helped gain wide popularity among the young generation, especially when the then mayoral candidate Han’s populist manner inflamed the generation divide at the same time. Recognizing his newfound ‘marketability’, DPP joined force with TSP and supported Chen ‘migrated’ to Taichung 2nd constituency to challenge the KMT incumbent Yen Kuan-Heng in the 2020 Legislative Election. The constituency is a KMT’s traditional stronghold, where the Yen family has played an influential role for more than two decades. Therefore, it came as a huge blow to KMT and a rare win for TSP that an ‘outsider’ like Chen with an unconventional charisma can beat the local powerhouse, even just by a 2% margin. Many commentators contributed his win to the idea that the young generation is more open-minded toward atypical politicians and rejects regional factionalism, for which smaller parties become an attractive option. 

 Elected to the Legislative Yuan before Chen, Freddy Lim is another unorthodox political figure who rose to fame as a heavy metal band frontman and human rights campaigner prior to representing the New Power Party (NPP) for parliamentary election in Taipei 5th Constituency in 2015. He is one of the founders of NPP, a centre-left ‘third force’ (第三勢力) established after and by several prominent figures from 2014 Sunflower, but left the Party in 2019. Winning the parliamentary re-election as an independent candidate in 2020, he has been working closely with the pan-Green politicians on several issues such as same-sex marriage, supporting Hong Kong and Tibet, as well as backing the current Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chi-Mai in the by-election. 

 The high media exposure and being vociferous opponents of China somewhat rendered Chen and Lim an ideal target for the pan-Blues to rally up dissatisfaction among electorates. In the case of Chen, it was done via explosive revelations, including his past involvement in a hit-and-run and an illegal gambling case. KMT and the local factions, which were spearheaded by the Yen networks, also worked hard to fan the flames by criticizing Chen for prioritizing DPP before his constituency. Regardless being evaluated as excellent for his performance in the Legislative Yuan by the Citizen Congress Watch, Chen was recalled in October by short of 4500 votes. The number, ironically, was about the same margin as his winning of legislature seat one-and-half years ago. Additionally, the astonishing 51% voter turnout was not only higher than the Kaohsiung mayoralty recall but a clear indicator of how polarized this election was. 

 Of course, the pan-Blues credited Chen’s recall as the win of people’s will and a justification for the recall petition against Lim, claiming he had lost touch with his constituency. The whole situation felt like a déjà vu: another high-profile third force politician with an excellent legislature record and an unambiguous pro-independence stand was deemed ‘unfit’ for his post. A further intriguing commonality between Lim and Chen is that they were both members of the Foreign and National Defence Committee at the Legislative Yuan, in which the pan-Green camp forms the majority. Concerning national security and veteran affairs, the Committee is strategically important for either political party, especially when China is ratcheting up military pressure. Over the past years, more and more reports on Taiwanese retired high-ranking military generals, historically a pan-Blue stronghold, attended official ceremonies in China. Meanwhile, top KMT figures were not discrete regarding their relationships with Chinese officials. For instance, former KMT leaders Lien Chan and Hung Hsiu-Chu had met with Xi Jinping on various occasions. Hence, some pundits suspected that Chen and Lim were targeted for the objective of killing two birds with one stone.

 Seeing how the young progressive politicians were carefully selected for their political differences, the four recall campaigns, albeit all initiated by local residents at the outset, arguably were a vibrant civil society in action but a demonstration of weaponizing democratic measures for political revenge. Obviously, a partisan catfight in a democracy is nothing new. However, taking the heightened cognitive warfare from China into consideration, a deeper concern arises: While the 2014 Sunflower Movement facilitated a better civic engagement in Taiwan, it also shows the concerned parties in Taiwan and China how to indirectly manifest ‘public will’ through the creation of an ‘enemy within’, especially with the help of netizens. An epic civil movement like the Sunflower can only happen when the timing is right. Yet, with the split attitude toward individual identity and unification-independence stances inside Taiwan society, it means China can always find sympathizers within via its meticulous socio-economic network with Taiwan and replicate similar events on a much smaller scale. 

Regardless Lim survived the revenge recall and another by-election win for the pan-Greens in Taichung yesterday, the above recall elections somehow  brought all the third force parties, NPP, TSP, and Taipei City mayor Ko Wen-Je’s Taiwan People’s Party alike, in line with either DPP or KMT. Such a situation may propel the general public to either join the polarised political rhetoric or have more reasons not to care. In contrast, smaller political parties face a challenging future to assert their differences. Notwithstanding President Tsai Ing-Wen’s calling for unity within differences and rational deliberation after the troublesome referendums last December, the recall-infested 2021 is a cautious tale for Taiwan about turning democracy against itself. 

Li-Ning Chen is an Assistant researcher at the Science & Technology Policy Research, and Information Centre, Taiwan. Chen received a PhD in Government from the University of Essex

This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Taiwan 2022: Reflections, Predictions and Trends”.

3 comments

  1. When it is possible to recall an elected representative with fewer votes than they got at the original election then the recall procedure is flawed because the representative is hemmed in unduly by the prospect of short-lived changes in voter mood. Is it possible to get recalled in Taiwan with fewer votes than in the original election?

    Is it at all desirable to recall representatives when they have to face re-election anyway every four years?

    On the other hand, isn’t it dangerous to claim that democracy is turning against itself when opposition parties use all available democratic options they deem effective to keep the governing party in line with voters’ will?

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    1. To answer your questions:

      1. Yes, it is possible to be recalled in Taiwan with fewer votes than in the original election. That happened to be the case for Chen Po-Wei.
      2. I think it somewhat depends on how you see it. If the representatives were deeded unfit for the position and ‘recall’ is the best available option, it could be better to remove those office-holders sooner than later to prevent more damages.
      3. In the series of recalls covered in the article, only 1 out of 4 local representatives was from DPP, the current party in power in Taiwan, and the rest were either independent or from minority parties. Meanwhile, those representatives didn’t really commit any malfeasance but, I would argue, more ‘at fault’ for being outspoken for their political stances. Taking those and KMT’s behaviors into consideration, it’s somewhat difficult to see how KMT’s motivation was “to keep the governing party in line with voters’ will”.

      Hope these helps and thanks for your feedback!

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  2. I see your point. But what does an opposition party gain when it ousts independents and members of minority parties who are outspoken but have not much influence on policy?

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