China Power

The Tragedy of Taiwan’s ‘Recall Revenge’

Recent Features

China Power | Politics | East Asia

The Tragedy of Taiwan’s ‘Recall Revenge’

The goal of Taiwan’s recall and referendum reforms was to empower civil society against entrenched politicians. The result has been the exact opposite.

The Tragedy of Taiwan’s ‘Recall Revenge’
Credit: Depositphotos

One of Taiwan’s best-known legislators, Freddy Lim, is the latest political figure to face a possible recall in spite of his fame and popularity. The internationally famous heavy metal rock star turned activist and lawmaker is just one of the many young pan-green political figures caught in recall recoil by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which is intent on punishing Lim as the representative of Taipei’s Wanhua, the epicenter of Taiwan’s recent COVID-19 outbreak.

Since the successful recall of former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the KMT last year, campaigns like these have become a new tool for partisan political punishment. Pan-blue forces have begun using recalls as a mode of revenge against those who oppose them, and are now actively targeting young politicians with recalls. Since Han’s removal, six young legislative members and city councilors are now facing or have already faced recall votes. Lim is the latest in their crosshairs.

Recalling a politician in Taiwan is easy to do; arguably, even easier than electing a politician.

The rules, changed beginning in 2016, require signatures from just 1 percent of the relevant electorate to propose a recall. Thereafter, signatures from only 10 percent – down from 13 percent – of the voting population are needed to advance the proposal to an official vote. Finally, for the outcome to be valid only 25 percent of voters need to participate – down from 50 percent. In the past five years there have been 15 recall movements, four of which have been successful.

How and Why the Rules Changed

In 2016 and 2017, Taiwan changed the rules for recalling elected officials and proposing public referendums, the second round of which President Tsai Ing-wen heralded as a “historic moment” ushering in a new era in which “people are the masters” of the country.

The initial push for lowering the thresholds for these methods of political change through public participation grew out of the 2014 Sunflower student movement, when the newly formed New Power Party aligned with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to push for easier access to this arsenal. Their goal was to give civil society the power to take down corrupt politicians, and the means to advocate for more pro-Taiwan legislation.

But what ended up happening has been almost the polar opposite.

Ironically, the KMT has weaponized recalls against the same pan-green progressives who pushed for the lowering of the recall thresholds. In the years since 2014, youth-oriented civil society groups such as the Appendectomy Project pushed for the lowering of thresholds in order to remove pan-blue politicians that they viewed as having grown corrupt after long terms in office. Post-Sunflower youth activists thus pushed for recalls as a means of creating more space for progressive young politicians to take power; now, the recall is being used against them by the same conservative politicians it was intended to remove from power.

Are Recalls and Referendums Dangerous?

Recall elections and public referendums are not inherently bad. Indeed, all democracies ought to have these options for their citizens. They are two tools that can be used by civil society to directly intervene in a state’s political process. Most democracies do have these, but typically the threshold to use them is kept high in order to avoid constant recalls and overwhelming numbers of referendums. In most cases, such methods cannot be employed with ease.

Yet in Taiwan, the political process has become so accessible to the public that it has actually become a hindrance to Taiwan’s democracy, rather than an asset. When recalls become a routine tool for parties to use out of retaliation, it distracts politicians from actually doing their jobs. Instead, elected officials spend months focused on the recall campaign in order to defend themselves and their position.

Recalls are also breeding further recalls. The successful recall of Han Kuo-yu by overwhelming margins – with 939,090 out of 969,259 voting to remove him from office – has led members of the KMT to vow to recall politicians who advocated for Han’s recall, including Taichung legislator Chen Po-wei of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party and independent Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Jie.

The Synonymous Referendum Problem

The appropriation of the recall vote by the KMT takes place in tandem with the KMT’s appropriation of the national referendum process.

Pan-green parties historically pushed for the lowering of benchmarks for referendums mandated in the constitution in order to settle long-standing issues facing Taiwan, such as the use of nuclear power or the independence/unification question. In the years prior to Tsai taking office, the thresholds on holding referendums stipulated in the Referendum Act were termed a “Birdcage Referendum Act,” When the Referendum Act was amended in 2017, it did not allow for voting on the issue of independence.

However, the pan-blue camp was highly successful in using the referendum to benefit its electoral campaigning in 2018, drumming up controversy regarding various issues up for referendum and using this as a means to mobilize the public to support the KMT. This prompted the DPP to further revise the Referendum Act in 2019 to split the day that national referendums are held on from the day that elections are held on.

Now it is the KMT that is calling for further changes to the Referendum Act to again hold referendums concurrent with elections; the KMT has even appropriated the DPP’s earlier rhetoric by calling for amendments to the “Iron Cage Referendum Act.”

A Need for Reflection

Endless debates and resources are now spent on recalls and referendums, which are hurting civil society more than helping it. So far, the pan-green camp has not made moves to change laws governing recalls, and it is unclear if the referendum on referendums will pass. For now, the Pandora’s Box of recalls and referendums does not appear to be closing.

Taiwan’s relatively young democracy is still a work in progress. As hectic as the referendum and recall issue has become, it shows that Taiwan is made up of good democratic institutions continuously working to find the right balance. Now it is just a matter of adjusting systems to make sure they work for – not against – the people.

Guest Author

Lev Nachman

Lev Nachman is a Postdoc Research Fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Irvine.

Guest Author

Brian Hioe

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. He has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.