Han is recalled

Citizens of Kaohsiung voted today to recall mayor Han Kuo-yu. Less than two years ago, Han was an afterthought in Taiwan’s politics, one of those “didn’t-he-used-to-be?” figures. Sure, he had managed to obtain the KMT’s Kaohsiung mayoral nomination, but that was because the KMT didn’t have anyone good to run in a city they hadn’t won in two decades. Suddenly in about August 2018, he rocketed from being cannon-fodder in the Kaohsiung mayoral election polls to the front-runner. It was unlikely, but it wasn’t a polling error. Somehow, this outsider who seemed thoroughly incompatible with Kaohsiung’s partisan preferences romped to victory, beating the competent but bland DPP candidate by 9%. Almost immediately, KMT supporters started pushing Han to run for president. After all, he had just won an unwinnable race and led a national KMT sweep; he had the magic touch! Even though he had barely taken office as mayor, he rode this wave of enthusiasm. In retrospect, however, when he told a rabid crowd, “I do” [agree to run for president], what Kaohsiung voters seemed to hear was that his wandering eye had already found a prettier girl. His engagement to the KMT marked the start of divorce proceedings with Kaohsiung. As we all know, the presidential race didn’t go well for Han. His early polling lead turned into a landslide defeat. A social group started organizing a recall effort in the fall, and they found plenty of support. Now, less than two years after he dramatically burst on the scene, Han is out. His English name is Daniel, but maybe he should change it to Icarus.

 

I have two big topics that I want to address. First, I want to talk about the recall. Second, I will speculate on Han’s future and what this says about populism in Taiwan.

 

I’m not a big fan of recalls. One of the great things about elections is that they produce a resolution. You argue for several months, and then the votes are counted and one side ends up with more power. Especially in local politics, where the stakes are lower, you can then set aside political conflicts for a period of time. Democracy doesn’t work well when the population is at peak mobilization all the time. You need some ebbs and flows. Recalls have the potential to interrupt this rhythm by creating perpetual politics. It gets worse if the threshold for success is too low. When recalls are easy, you are inviting losers to try to overturn the election result. Even if the threshold for passing the recall is high, if it is easy to get a recall on the ballot, that can also be problematic. Long-shot recalls are a form of political harassment, in which the officeholders have to spend time and energy defending their seat. If one side has much stronger organizational and financial resources, it is easy to imagine how recalls could be systematically abused. The current recall law, passed in 2017, makes recalls too easy.

Let me talk in more concrete terms. In 2014, the DPP unexpectedly won the mayorship in Taoyuan. Cheng Wen-tsan turned out to be a very popular mayor, but the KMT has always had enough organizational muscle to put together a petition drive. Under the current law, they could certainly have placed a recall on the ballot. Since Cheng is popular, the KMT might not have been able to mobilize 25% of the eligible voters to vote for the recall. However, since Taoyuan has long been considered blue territory and 29.5% of eligible voters actually voted for his opponent in the 2014 election, Cheng probably would not want to count on that. He would be forced to spend immense amounts of time, energy, and money to mobilize all his supporters again. Remember, the point of this example is that there was never any real reason to recall the popular Cheng. It would simply be political harassment that would sap his resources and take his focus away from actually running the city.

Now that one recall has succeeded, expect to see more. Nothing inspires copycats like success. A plethora of frivolous recalls will not improve Taiwan’s democratic structure.

I don’t think that recalls are all bad, but the current law is too lax. In general, it should be harder to recall someone than for them to be elected in the first place. Recalls should only have a hope of success if the incumbent has become much, much less popular while in office. If there hasn’t been a dramatic change in public opinion, we don’t need recalls. The current law requires 10% of the electorate to sign a petition for the recall to get on the ballot. Maybe that should be increased. To pass the recall, you need more yes votes than no votes, and at least 25% of the eligible voters must vote yes. This is the part that I feel most strongly should be changed. 25% is too low. Rather than one-fourth, I think a more suitable threshold should be one-third. This would be high enough to deter all but the most intense recall efforts.

 

All that aside, Han’s recall was not frivolous. This was the rare recall that was warranted. I said that it should be harder to recall someone than to elect them in the first place. This recall met that demand.

In the 2018 general election, Kaohsiung had the highest turnout in the country and Han won 892,545 votes. The threshold for the recall was roughly 575,000 yes votes, and Han would have had a legitimate gripe if the recall had barely passed. Why should (for example) 600,000 recall votes be worth more than 892,000 general election votes? Of course, there are arguments to be made. If Han still had 892,000 supporters, he could have mobilized them and beaten back a recall. Moreover, it is a lot harder to get people to come out to vote in an isolated recall vote than in a general election. In a general election, the whole society builds to a crescendo focused on election day, and politicians build careers by learning how to mobilize voters. In a recall, the national focus might be elsewhere, and you certainly don’t have the same level of national mobilization. Still, if 600,000 beat 892,000, Han would have had something to complain about.

As you likely know, the yes side did not merely squeeze past the 25% threshold. An astounding 40.8% of the electorate voted to recall Han. 939,090 voted yes, and 939,000 is clearly bigger than 892,000.

Even more astounding, there were lots of reasons to expect a lower turnout. For one, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. To the best of our knowledge, Covid-19 is not loose in Taiwan. Still, some people might be scared. For another, the city government has been actively trying to hamper election administration. They tried to limit the number of precincts, change voting locations, tore down pro-recall billboards, and accused the recall side of vote-buying and other irregularities. Han told his supporters not to vote, which effectively deprived voters of the secret ballot. Some people, such as civil servants or others who lived in rabidly blue neighborhoods might have worried about repercussions if people saw them voting, since nearly every voter voted yes. There were also rumors that thugs might engage in voter suppression, though I did not see any actual reports of this. The DPP did not really get involved in this recall. While they clearly sympathized and supported it, they mostly left the rallies and mobilization efforts to amateur social activists. President Tsai, Premier Su, Health Minister Chen and other prominent DPP figures pointedly did not go to Kaohsiung and hold a big pro-recall event. The media covered the recall, but it did not get anywhere near the attention that a general election campaign would generate. The island was not gripped with an election fever atmosphere. Finally, there was a massive cloudburst in the afternoon, and most people think that huge rainstorms depress turnout.

In spite of all that, turnout was 42.1%, which would be pretty high for a by-election and is simply mind-boggling considering that only one side participated. (97.4% of the valid votes were yes votes.) I guess we have to remember that we haven’t had many recalls, so we shouldn’t really have strong prior expectations about turnout. We know that 40% is pretty good for a legislative by-election, but we also know that higher offices tend to produce higher turnout. Mayor is Taiwan’s second-highest directly elected office, but we’ve never had a by-election for the mayor of a direct municipality. I think it’s safe to say that the importance of the office helped drive up the turnout in this recall vote.

[Aside: In spite of all those challenges, the recall seems to have been competently administered. A neutral and efficient bureaucracy is a wonderful thing! Let’s hope that the conventional wisdom becomes that Han’s efforts to impede turnout caused a backlash and deters future politicians from repeating this strategy.]

 

However, I think the most important factor was Han himself, and that brings us to the second big topic. Over the last two years, Han has created a lot of strong opinions about himself. People who like him absolutely adore him, but people who don’t like him tend to detest him. Unfortunately for Han, we have pretty good evidence that there are more people in the latter group than in the former. I think Han is such a polarizing person that people wanted to have their say about him. He has been keeping a low profile for the past few weeks hoping to convince people that his is actually a conscientious administrator, but I think this cake was baked months ago. You can’t change opinions that are etched in stone with just a few weeks of bland behavior. I don’t think a different mayor, even one who isn’t that popular (eg Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yen or Changhua magistrate Wang Hui-mei) would inspire this kind of turnout. Han did this to himself.

 

So what does this mean? There have been suggestions that Han’s next move will be to run for KMT party chair next spring. He might try, but I have doubts about his prospects.

This was a crushing and humiliating repudiation on the heels of a similar crushing and humiliating repudiation five months ago. Han’s path to the presidential nomination was due in large part to the fact that he was a winner. He had conjured up the unimaginable victory in Kaohsiung where everyone else had failed. Somehow, he had convinced a traditionally green constituency to vote for him even though he never deviated from traditional KMT ideas about China and Chineseness. Further, his Han wave had pulled several other KMT candidates to victory all over Taiwan. A year ago, KMT supporters still had good reason to believe in Han. He was a winner. Now he is a loser. Whatever magic used to be there is clearly gone. It worked one time, and it doesn’t work any longer. He can’t even make the argument that the presidential race was all about Hong Kong but his mojo will still work in local politics. If the KMT selects Han as its new chair a year from now, they will do so in spite of clear evidence that he is a ballot box disaster. While party members might like his message, they also want badly to win. I suspect he will find enthusiasm lacking.

 

After the votes were counted, Han spoke to the media. After thanking his supporters and his governing team, he transformed into the angry populist version of himself. He complained that the Tsai government hasn’t done anything for the people since getting re-elected and instead has focused all of its energy on slandering and recalling him. He also insisted that the media is all against him and sarcastically commended them for working so hard. This message was straight out of his presidential campaign, but it felt especially disconnected tonight. The rest of society seems to think that since the January election the Tsai government has spent most of its energy dealing with the pandemic, both in keeping the virus out of Taiwan and in responding to new economic, diplomatic, and security conditions caused by the pandemic. If polls are any indication, the population seems to think the Tsai government has done quite a bit for ordinary people over the past few months. However, that’s apparently not the mental world Han is living in right now.

The presidential campaign largely turned on national identity, as Taiwan’s elections almost always do. However, Tsai also had to deal with Han’s populist attacks that her government was only concerned about amassing power to enrich itself and not at all about ordinary people. Tsai rebutted Han’s populist rhetoric with two main points. The first was a negative attack: Han is not the person he says he is. While Han wanted voters to think he was just an ordinary person like them, the Tsai campaign pointed to his real estate and other financial dealings. Han was complaining about corrupt politicians, but he himself was just another corrupt politician. The second was a positive message. Han screamed that politicians should work to make ordinary people’s lives better; Tsai responded that she was the one who was actually doing that. She talked at length about raising wages, opening day care centers, strengthening long-term health care, keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, economic growth, and all kinds of other big and small policy successes. Han talked; she produced. As far as I can tell, Tsai’s rebuttal was effective. Han was reduced to his nationalist supporters. In 2018, there were a lot of angry voters who wanted a rotation of power so that the city might produce better policies for them who voted for Han. In 2020, that support disappeared. If you weren’t a traditional KMT voter, you didn’t vote for Han in 2020. The populist argument seemed to have flopped.

With Han’s second repudiation, does that mean populism is dead in Taiwan? I think it probably means that Han’s populism is dead. He is no longer a credible messenger, and the next populist will need a somewhat different message.

However, what about populism in general? The best antidote to populism is good governance, and right now Taiwan is producing outstanding governance. It will be hard to argue that the government hasn’t done anything for ordinary people for the next few years. Everyone will remember that Taiwan has met the challenge of Covid-19 better than any other country in the world. However, you cannot rest on past laurels very long in politics. People will eventually start asking, “what have you done for me lately?” If there is a corruption scandal, that moment will come even sooner. That may be the signal for the next aspiring populist to try out his or her message.

I’ve said before that populism is a more obvious message for the DPP than the KMT. Populism involves a claim to represent “the real people,” implying that not all citizens are members of the real people. Han’s version was essentially anti-elitist, but it isn’t especially potent to claim that elites are not ordinary. A Taiwan nationalist politician railing against “the hidden traitors in our society” might have a much more powerful message. I can even imagine this cropping up in the next presidential election. Tsai’s rhetoric about ROC Taiwan, which explicitly includes all 23 million citizens, is decidedly anti-populist. She will try to ensure that her successor follows that inclusive line. However, a challenger might decide that a more exclusionary message is the best option to wrest away the presidential nomination.

So no, I don’t think Han’s defeat means that Taiwan has decisively and forever killed populism. But populism is not particularly vibrant in contemporary Taiwan.

2 Responses to “Han is recalled”

  1. Albert Yen Says:

    I agree that recalling someone should be harder than electing someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that recalls should require more votes than the election. The 29.4% of blue voters in the Taoyuan example includes plenty of soft support, those who may consistently vote blue but aren’t driven by strong negative partisanship. There is no way to turn out those soft supporters in a recall vote driven purely by partisan machinery. The 10% threshold is also not easy meet considering it requires the voters to fill out detailed personal information, so only the most enthusiastic citizens will participate. If I remember correctly one of the legislator recalls in 2015 didn’t even meet the 10% petition requirement. If the recall threshold is too high (as I think one third may be) it can incentivize the politician to electioneer to depress turnout by a few points and have the recall vote fall just short of the threshold. It’s risky to know in advance that the recall vote at best will only pass with a few votes to spare.

  2. Reforming the California recall-replacement process | Fruits and Votes Says:

    […] for implementing that principle. That blog is about elections in Taiwan, where there are recalls and there is a turnout requirement for it to be valid (but it is low, at […]

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