Yesterday the DPP held a big demonstration here in Taipei, and, for the climax, they announced they would begin a recall campaign against President Ma and several KMT legislators. I have several thoughts about this.
First, the video they showed of President Ma calling on his supporters to recall President Chen in 2006 was extraordinary. Ma systematically destroyed all the arguments he might make today to delegitimize the DPP’s actions. If I were the DPP, I would buy TV commercials and play that clip over and over. I’m sure Ma never dreamed that speech would come back to haunt him. Politicians never expect that they will someday be in the same position as that incompetent, immoral jerk they are attacking.
Second, this is a great example of how extraordinary tactics become ordinary. In 2006, the KMT probably thought that they were facing very rare and extreme circumstances. After all, as they saw it, Chen was unpopular, corrupt, and he had stolen the presidency. Moreover, the only thing he could do to deal with this was take extreme positions on national security that might endanger the country’s future. In that context, extreme measures like a recall were justified. Then, to give the recall the broadest possible coalition of support, they tried to package it as a part of normal, democratic politics (as per Ma’s aforementioned speech). Whether or not the recall was appropriate under the extreme circumstances of 2006, the KMT had introduced it into the arsenal of acceptable political tactics. Fast forward to yesterday. Su Tseng-chang went out of his way to argue that this recall effort is not due to any extraordinary circumstances. Ma is simply extremely ineffective and unpopular, and this is how a normal opposition party should act in such circumstances. Don’t expect this to be the last time Taiwan sees a recall movement, and the next time will probably be under even milder circumstances than this time.
Third, this episode suggests to me that four years is just too long between elections. Taiwan really needs mid-term elections or shorter terms. If there were a mid-term election a year from now, the DPP would probably just wait for that. Instead, they have to wait three more years to register their dissatisfaction, and that is simply too long. Instead of having a legitimate, regularized process in which the opposition party had an opportunity to strip an unpopular president of his majority (or an embattled president had an opportunity to reassert his popular support). Instead we will have a process that one side will claim is illegitimate (“It’s just creating chaos in society.”) and will have almost no chance of changing the balance of power. The politicians set up this system because they hate facing elections all the time. Elections are expensive, messy, and politicians always feel that they get in the way of good governance. In the 1990s, there was a major election nearly every year, and the people in power hated it. This system, with only one national election every four years, was their dream. Finally, they could ignore politics and get on with governing. Well, it turns out that you can’t get away from electoral politics in a democracy. Public opinion needs an outlet at regular intervals. This is especially critical when public opinion has changed significantly since the most recent election. Of course, you can’t design institutions for stable or volatile public opinion, so it is important to have shorter intervals.
I don’t think the politicians will learn this lesson from this episode, but it would be nice if they did. What could they do to fix things? Four years is about right for a presidential term. I liked the old three year term for legislators, but I don’t think they will ever go back to that. I also understand why you want to align legislative and presidential terms. If they won’t go to three year terms, two year legislative terms are a non-starter. The best option might be to stagger four-year terms, with half the legislators being elected in the presidential year and the other half in the mid-term. (Ideally, they would kill two birds with one stone and just double the size of the legislature. Ok, ideally they would take the opportunity to change to an MMP or open list PR system with 100 seats elected every two years.)
(Are local elections mid-term elections? Not really. First, they only affect power at the local level. Second, they aren’t located at the midway point in Ma’s term. The county elections are close to the right time (Dec 2013), but the direct municipality elections are not held until well over halfway though Ma’s term. About 2/3 of the population live in direct municipalities, and they will have to wait until Dec 2014 to vote. Maybe if you held all local elections in March 2014, that could serve as an effective mid-term. Right now, not so much.)
Fourth, how much chance does the DPP have of success in any of these recall efforts? If the object is to actually recall anyone, the answer is almost none. The presidential recall is fairly simple. One fourth of the legislature needs to ask for a recall proposal. Then two-thirds of the legislature has to approve it. Then half the electorate must turn out in a recall election, and half of those voting must vote for recall. The DPP will be able to propose a recall and force a vote of the full legislature. However, that is as far as it will get. They are never going to get two-thirds. The legislative process is more complex. First, the DPP has to collect signatures from at least 2% of the electorate in the district asking for a recall proposal. If they pass that hurdle, then they have to collect signatures for the recall itself from 13% of the electorate. Then you have an actual recall election. For the official to be recalled, you need half the electorate to turn out and “yes” must win a majority of those votes. Let’s look at those numbers with a concrete example. Suppose the DPP wanted to recall Lee Hung-chun 李鴻鈞 in New Taipei 4th District. Lee won the district over Lin Cho-shui 林濁水 by a margin of 103165-94126 (51.%-46.6%). There were 267836 voters, and the turnout was 77.2%. For simplicity, let’s assume there is no change in the number of eligible voters. To ask for the recall, the DPP needs to collect 5357 signatures. That is easy. However, they then need to collect signatures from 34819 voters. In other words, they need about 1/3 of the people who actually voted for them last year to sign the petition. When you consider how much harder it is to collect signatures than to win votes, that is a formidable task. Votes are anonymous, a lot of voters are outside mobilization networks, many voters are only tepid supporters, and many will be unwilling to recall a politician. It would take a major effort, but getting this 13% is not an impossible hurdle. Then they would hold the actual recall election. The rules are the same as those for a referendum, and by now Taiwanese voters have had plenty of practice with referenda. The crucial threshold is the 50% turnout, so opponents simply do not turn out to vote. That means that the DPP will have to mobilize the full 50% of the electorate, or 133918 votes, all by itself. Recall that they could only get 94126 votes in the general election, even with a concurrent presidential election. The possibility of besting that number by nearly 50% in a recall election is remote. KMT legislators in safe districts or even tossup districts aren’t going to have nightmares about a DPP recall effort. There are, however, three KMT legislators in very green districts, Chang Chia-chun 張嘉郡 in Yunlin 1, Weng Chung-chun 翁重鈞 in Chiayi County 1, and Lin Kuo-cheng 林國正 in Kaohsiung 9. Could the DPP recall them? In Yunlin 1, Tsai Ing-wen won 56.2% of the votes. However, this only amounts to 36.6% of the total electorate. In Chiayi 1, Tsai’s 58.8% of the actual vote is only 42.8% of the electorate, and in Kaohsiung 9, she won 56.1% of the electorate but only 42.2% of the electorate. In other words, the DPP would have to beat Tsai Ing-wen’s vote total by a large margin to successfully recall a KMT legislator even in one of these very green districts. Realistically speaking, that just isn’t going to happen.
Fifth, I’m sure the DPP has done these calculations, and they know this recall movement isn’t going to actually recall anyone. So why are they doing it? This is all about the process. They need to give their supporters some way to vent their anger and frustration. There is no national-scale election coming up right away, so this is what the DPP can do. Inflamed supporters can direct their passion to organizing signature campaigns. Moreover, the media will have to cover this process, so for the next few months they will be talking about whether Ma is really doing THAT bad of a job and deserves to be recalled. It also might be that Su Tseng-chang is feeling criticism that he hasn’t been an effective opposition leader over the past year and feels the need to actively do something. At any rate, I’m not sure this is a wise course for the DPP. This declaration of all-out war on the KMT is certain to create something of a backlash among blue supporters, and it is likely to fail (to recall anyone). Moreover, the DPP is knocking down one of the unwritten rules, that when you win an election you get to serve out the full term. The KMT tried to recall Chen in 2006; now the DPP is expanding that to a group of legislators. It doesn’t take too much imagination to wonder if mayors are next, especially if any of these recalls come unexpectedly close to success. The DPP is opting for an aggressive strategy that might eventually come back to haunt them, in the same way that Ma Ying-jeou’s demand in 2006 to recall President Chen is probably causing him a bit of consternation right now.