‘Too Much Love Will Kill You?’ An Account of the Recent Recall Elections in Taiwan and Subsequent Political Dynamics

Written by Chieh-Chi Hsieh.

Image credit: Gate into Liberty Square by Ian Glover/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Since Taiwan’s 2020 Presidential election, 14 recall elections have taken place. Yet, it would be hard to disagree that amongst the 14 recall ballots, merely five have managed to attract nationwide media coverage and broader public attention. These include the recall elections of former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, city councillors Wang Hao-yu (Taoyuan City), Huang Jie (Kaohsiung City), and legislators Chen Po-wei (Taichung City), Freddy Lim (Taipei City). So, what are the underlying political implications of these recall campaigns and their subsequent developments?

Power Struggles Between DPP and Opposition Parties

First, after successfully revoking Han and defending Huang and Lim, the most obvious point is that the political clout of the incumbent government led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) still prevails over opposition parties. This includes the leading opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), followed by opposition parties such as Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Yet, beyond the obvious 3-2 election success, perhaps what is more alarming is that the country’s leading opposition party seems to be moving further away from the slightest chance of ever regaining any significant political power in the foreseeable future.

It would be fair to claim that the KMT’s endeavour to reform and transform into a new and more Taiwan-centric party after the humiliating defeat in the 2020 Presidential campaign proves to be an utter failure. A notable instance is how the then newly elected KMT party chairman Chiang Chi-chen failed to secure his position by a large margin of roughly 27% (5,0074 ballots) to former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu last September, and also came in third place after Sun Yat-Sen School President Chang Ya-chung. Given his ‘deep Blue’ background, Chang being runner-up in KMT’s party chair election demonstrates the ‘stickiness’ of the party’s existing structure/institution (e.g., member composition), which can be expected to remain as the KMT’s greatest hurdle to reinventing itself.

To illustrate, one needs to consider that roughly 70% of KMT’s current members are 65 years-old and senior and share similar career backgrounds (e.g. retired civil servants/army veterans). In contrast, members under 40 years-old merely account for 3%. Although Chu was elected, one should not overlook that he is the first party chairman that failed to gain a simple majority on the ballot since the party’s establishment in 1894. This election conveyed a clear message: most KMT party members still stubbornly cling to their outdated China-centric ideology.

Moreover, with the TPP reducing its margin by less than 4% (i.e. 12.5% party supporting rate) in becoming the country’s leading opposition party, it may not be unrealistic to consider a possible collaboration between the two parties in local elections later this year. This collaboration may emerge either in the form of the TPP (‘White’ party) taking the lead or vice versa. To date, former Taipei Mayor and KMT senior figure Hau Lung-pin has publicly suggested the ‘White’ party to support KMT’s potential Taipei mayoral candidate Chiang Wan-an: the self-proclaimed great-grandson of former President Chiang Kai-Shek. Whether the collaboration between Blue and White parties will materialise and whether this is achieved on an ad hoc basis across the nation are aspects that warrant close observation in the coming months.

Nationwide Media Coverage Proves Harmful for KMT’s By-election Campaigns

The second important political implication is that the nationwide media coverage of these recall elections has proven to be harmful to the KMT insofar as exposing the shortcomings of its candidates.

For instance, after Han was revoked in June 2020, Kaohsiung City Councillor Li Mei-jhen became the KMT’s candidate to run for Kaohsiung Mayor. Certainly, Li is not, by any margin, a qualified candidate to compete with former vice premier and DPP raising star Chen Chi-mai in the by-election. However, the nationwide media coverage of Li’s campaign placed her under intense public scrutiny, which magnified every political error she made in the process. For instance, her uncanny comment about the effects of ‘telling lies’, violating copyright law in plagiarising pop artist Jay Chou’s then newly released music video in her campaign, and most notoriously receiving her Master’s degree from National Sun Yat-Sen University in 2008 by means of copy-and-pasting roughly 96% of her Masters dissertation from another thesis. Consequently, she was humiliated by a devastating loss of receiving 25.9% of votes compared to Chen’s 70.03% in the by-election, and subsequently had her Master’s degree revoked in October 2020.

In addition to Li’s case, another instance that exposed the KMT’s underbelly is the recent by-election for Taichung’s second electoral district. KMT candidate Yen Kuan-Heng, who took over his father Yen Ching-piao’s seat in 2013, was similarly under serious public scrutiny during the entire campaign. Aside from the allegations of bribery in providing lavish dishes during Yen’s campaign, his ability to attain wealth at a young age had been the locus of press coverage. For instance, Yen’s disclosed personal assets before the election shows that he has 67 plots of land, ten buildings mainly in the Taichung area, has roughly NT$ 27 million (approximately £714,870) in bank deposits, as well as NT$13.84 million worth of stocks (around £366,437). For a 44-year-old individual without previous work experience apart from serving as his father’s personal assistant in the Legislative Yuan, this cultivated the general public’s appetite for probing more into Yen’s past activities.

Their participation in by-elections has entailed pricey losses for both Li and Yen. In January 2022, the Taiwan Ciaotou District Prosecutors Office prosecuted Li for breaching Article 91 of the Copyright Act concerning plagiarism. Later this year, the case is expected to impact her re-election campaign as a Kaohsiung City Councillor negatively. In addition, to avoid further attacks on his illegally-constructed luxurious mansion in Shalu District, Yen abruptly sold the property at a discounted rate of roughly NT$ 45 million, which is below 50% of the house’s estimated market value on the 21st February. Arguably, none of these would have occurred if recall elections did not take place in the first place.

These developments beg the question of whether politicians would be deterred from participating in by-elections after successfully recalling incumbents? The short answer is no. The problems of the Yen family were in existence long before the recall of Chen Po-wei. Yen’s endeavours to revoke Chen and subsequently run in the by-election simply escalated the level of media coverage of their past and current activities to a nationwide audience. As for Li, given the revoke of Han was considered as Han’s ensuing battle against the DPP after his presidential campaign, Li received little to no media coverage in support of Han. Even after announcing her bid for Kaohsiung Mayor, she remains an unknown public figure albeit successfully re-elected as city councillor for three consecutive terms. Hence one can regard the revoke of her Master’s dissertation as the collateral damage resulting from her campaign strategy of sustaining her volume on social media platforms.

‘It May Not Be Rock-Bottom for the KMT’

Yes, there is more bad news for the KMT. Recent developments suggest that the party may have yet reached rock-bottom. To begin with, one would expect the KMT to ‘finally’ get a grip after recent campaign failures. However, it seems like the political crisis of KMT chairman Eric Chu is only beginning to unfold. This is much attributed to Chu disappointing his party and supporters with the decision to not attend the post-election press conference of Taichung’s by-election, and also infuriating fellow party members with his recent criticism on their lack of willingness to move beyond advancing their respective political interests.

In turn, the opening ceremony of the late president Chiang Ching-Kuo’s residence (i.e., renamed as Ching-Kuo Chi-Hai Cultural Park) last month demonstrated how the DPP is aiming to capture KMT’s final remaining political capital. During the ceremony, President Tsai tactfully emphasised Chiang’s lifelong goal of anti-communism and stated that ‘former President Chiang’s firm stance on protecting Taiwan was unquestionably the greatest common consensus of the Taiwanese people during his time. Moreover, this is the shared attribute between us.’ There are two potential effects of Tsai’s nifty statement. Firstly, it bears the political effect of reinforcing her own image as the guardian of Taiwan in contrast to KMT senior figures (e.g. Former President Ma Ying-jeou, former Vice President Lien Chan), who are considered weak against China by adhering to the 1992 consensus. Secondly, associating Chiang with the DPP government based on anti-communism may alter the long-standing public perception of the trade-off between maintaining Taiwan’s political interest and achieving economic growth. This is especially convincing due to the country’s astonishing economic performance in recent years (e.g., estimated GDP growth of 6.28% in 2021) whilst having a ‘cold’ relationship with China.

Following the current trajectory, the likelihood of KMT achieving great success in this year’s local elections is low. By then, it would be not only the end of Chu’s political aspiration to bid for the 2024 presidency but also the potential demise of the KMT.

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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