The Political Implications of Freddy Lim’s Recall Election

Written by Chieh-Chi Hsieh.

Image credit: Freddy Lim/ Facebook

On 9 January 2022, Taiwan witnessed the occurrence of two significant ballots: the first was the by-election in Taichung’s second constituency, the second was the recall election of ‘independent’ legislator Lim Tshiong-tso, better known as Freddy Lim. The ballots proved to be another two humiliating defeats for Taiwan’s leading opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

A Complete Failure of KMT?

At first sight, the easiest way to observe success and failure is by end results. In this case, Taichung’s by-election and Lim’s recall vote are certainly KMT’s defeat. However, there is more than the election results to contemplate.

To begin with, the obvious difference between the two elections is that the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate Dr Lin Ching-yi did succeed in defeating KMT Yen Kuan-heng in Taichung’s second district by all standards. Yet, in Taipei’s fifth constituency (Zhongzheng and Wanhua District), Lim barely overcame his revoke due to total turnout falling short of the demanded threshold. Ironically, Lim would have been revoked by means of a simple majority, given around 56% of ballots (54,813) were cast in support of his recall. Thus, it should be underscored that Lim was saved by the institutional settings of the recall ballot. Hence, it would be unfair to regard the failure to recall Lim as the defeat of the KMT.

Secondly, what is evidently exhibited in these two elections is that the KMT adopted the wrong campaign tactic of passive engagement. Different from the relatively high-profiled campaign strategy adopted to revoke legislator Chen Po-wei, the KMT had been really passive in supporting Yen in Taichung and recalling Lim in Taipei. For instance, it was reported that current KMT party chairman Eric Chu’s original schedule did not include a visit to Taichung in support of Yen’s candidacy one night before election day. Instead, Chu had tirelessly endeavoured to set the tone of Taichung’s by-election as merely a local-level event. In a similar vein, Chu was accused of ‘vanishing’ during the entire campaign for Lim’s recall. As a matter of fact, the recall vote was mainly driven by pan-Blue politician and former Taipei City Councillor Chung Hsiao-ping after Lim was criticised for allegedly being absent from his constituent during the initial major outbreak of COVID-19 in Taiwan last May. Considering that the required threshold for Lim’s recall is set at a quarter of the total eligible voters in the constituency (i.e. 58,756), the recall motion merely fell short of less than 4,000 ballots to pass. Compare this to the total ballots cast in support of KMT’s candidate Lin You-fang in the 2020 legislative election (i.e. 76,437). It is evident that if Chu had been more actively involved in Lim’s recall election, the result might have differed.

In fairness, there may be reasons that made Chu cold feet in supporting Lim. However, the most important factor is that given Chung’s previous decision to leave the KMT, Lim’s recall is broadly considered by certain KMT party members as serving the individual political interest of Chung rather than KMT as a whole. Moreover, the recall of Lim and previously Chen in Taichung, Huang Jie in Kaoshiung are widely perceived by the public as the KMT’s endeavours to target young pan-Green politicians. This type of ‘recall revenge’ is pathetic and deviates from ‘the original intent of empowering civil society against entrenched politicians’. Hence, it would be hard to disagree that actively engaging in the two campaigns does not show the KMT in a better light.

Concerning these two defeats, the KMT should be reflecting on whether they have anything to lose if they adopt an active campaign approach? These two defeats have harmed KMT’s already down-spiralling political clout. After KMT’s failed bid to revoke Lim, a public survey indicates the KMT suffering another 4% slip of party supporting rate to 15.6% in January 2022 compared to previous figures last December. Yes, the KMT’s prospect is grim indeed.

DPP’s Success in the recall vote for Lim?

If one cannot consider the two recent ballots defeats of the KMT, can one regard them as the DPP’s successful campaign? Intriguingly, the answer is not as clear-cut.

In the case of Lim, surely some would argue that the recall ballot should not be considered the DPP’s success, given he is not a DPP party member. However, an ambiguous relationship between Lim and the DPP always existed. For instance, before becoming one of the founding members of the New Power Party (NPP), one must not forget that as early as 2008, Lim already founded the ad-hoc group ‘Team Reverse Win’ (逆轉勝) in support of DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh in his bid for the presidency against KMT’s Ma. More recently, Lim’s decision to leave the NPP is attributed to his conflict with fellow NPP legislator and leading figure of the 2014 Sunflower movement Huang Kuo-chang after being accused of over leaning towards the DPP.

Given their relationship, DPP politicians have been especially vocal in supporting Lim’s case, which inevitably shaped the election into a battle between the Green and Blue parties. For instance, DPP senior figure and caucus whip Ker Chien-ming have stated that ‘[Lim] should not be facing this kind of treatment’ and that the DPP could not ‘live with ourselves if [the party did not] speak up now.’ In addition, political heavyweights such as President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President Lai Ching-te both showed their support for Lim to remain in the Legislative Yuan by attending his campaign the night before election day. In fact, after surviving the recall vote, Lim has publicly stated in a recent interview that he does not rule out the possibility of eventually joining the DPP. Thus, the DPP did successfully defended Lim’s position in the legislature. The question is, why did the party’s mobilisation efforts fail to assist Lim in securing a simple majority in his constituency?

Taking a Step Back

One tentative explanation can be made regarding why the DPP’s party mobilisation efforts did not enable Lim to gain a simple majority in Taipei’s fifth constituency. However, looking at the bigger picture, one can argue that Lim’s recall is less intensified in comparison to the Taichung second district’s by-election. The reason for the varying level of intensity is because, in the guise of campaigning for the by-election in Taichung, the DPP’s real aim is to jeopardise the incumbent Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen’s re-election campaign. Thus, although the DPP government-supported Lim’s case, it was at a different level than Taichung’s by-election.

Unlike Lim’s recall vote, it is evident that the DPP gave all their efforts to ensure Lin wins in Taichung. The number speaks for itself. The DPP’s Lin Ching-yi received an astonishing 88,752 ballots in her victory. Whilst not only did Lin’s total ballot exceed Yen by a large margin of almost 8,000 votes, but it also surpassed the total votes that supported Chen Po-wei to remain in the legislature (i.e. 73,433) in the previous recall election last year.       

Yes, Yen was an easy target. The general public is fully aware of the dodgy background of the Yen family. Yen’s father, Yen Ching-piao, is allegedly a notorious local gangster who has been previously accused of attempted murder and faced charges of weapons possession.

Yet, it is interesting that the pan-Green camp emphasised Yen’s connection with the Taichung City government during the campaign. This is not seen in Lim’s campaign. For instance, media coverage of Yen’s legal but immoral activities to accumulate wealth include the controversy surrounding the Taichung City government’s decision to alter the metro line, so it is closer to where the Yen family’s real estate property is in the Shalu District. In addition, the Yen family was able to utilise its political clout to change a public use designated land plot in Nantun District into building a private club to entertain business associates.

In some cases, pan-Green media directly attacked mayor Lu rather than Yen. For instance, Lu was accused of selling off public land worth 51.2 billion TW dollars to large real estate businesses since taking office in 2018. It was reported that these land properties in the Beitun district were originally designated to construct social housings. The intent of drawing this linkage to Lu is apparent, especially amid the soaring housing price issue in Taiwan.

In terms of the election campaign in Taipei, the DPP could not duplicate this strategy. Unlike Mayor Lu, who would be running for re-election later this year, the current Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je is already serving his second and final term. Moreover, although rumours circulated that KMT legislator and rising star Chiang Wan-an will run for Taipei Mayor, this was not officially confirmed after the by-election on 18 January.

In brief, the two ballots may be conveying a down-spiralling trajectory of KMT’s popularity and supporting rate. Yet, by observing the DPP government’s actions in the respective campaigns of Lin and Lim, one can explain the diverging results of the elections. Moreover, with pan-Green media (e.g. political talk shows broadcasted on Set News, Formosa TV network) continuing to focus on Lu’s actions and connections with Yen after the by-election, it makes apparent that pan-Green groups have already begun their preparations for the 2022 local elections later this year.

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.


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