Archive for the ‘recalls’ Category

Recall of Chen Po-wei (Taichung 2)

October 24, 2021

Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 (Taiwan Statebuilding Party, TSP) was recalled from his seat in Taichung 2nd district yesterday. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to each cut and thrust of this recall, so I can’t comment a lot on the strategic decisions of the pro- and anti-recall efforts. However, I will say that this incident has neatly displayed many of the flaws in the recall law. I have argued that the current recall law invites big parties to bully small parties, makes it easier to recall someone than to elect them in the first place, and encourages losers to continually try to overturn election results, even without a major change in public opinion. Check, check, and check. The fact that Chen will lose his seat is a clear indication that the electoral law must be reformed to make recalls much more difficult.

The recall law currently requires that the yes side exceed 25% of eligible voters and that yes notes must outnumber no votes. Taichung 2 has 294,976 eligible voters, so the yes side needed at least 73,744 votes.

  Valid %Eligible %
Yes (recall)77,89951.526.4
No (don’t recall)73,43348.524.9

It was a very close result by both standards. The yes side beat the no side by fewer than 5,000 votes, and they only exceeded the 25% threshold by 1.4%.

This is not much different from the results of the general election. In January 2020, Chen won a very close race against KMT incumbent Yan Kuan-heng. Yen played a leading role in this recall election, and he is expected to try to regain his seat in the coming by-election. I don’t think it is much of a stretch at all to suggest this recall was an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result.

  Valid %Win
Yen (KMT)107,76648.9 
Chen (TSP)112,83951.1*

I believe that recalls should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which an incumbent clearly loses large amounts of previous support. Going from 51-49% to 48-51% doesn’t strike me as a massive shift in public opinion. This is more like the kind of shift that you get several times a month on one direction or the other depending on the headlines of the day. Relitigating elections every time there is a 3% shift is a recipe for chaos.

It isn’t obvious why this is a stronger indication of a public mandate than the previous result. Why should 77,899 votes be more powerful than the 112,839 votes that were cast to elect Chen? This may have been more of a mobilization victory than a change in public opinion. Yen may simply have mobilized 73.3% of his previous support, while Chen could only mobilize 65.1% of his. It wouldn’t be surprising if Yen had (as pretty much everyone believes) a significant advantage in grassroots organization that allowed him to mobilize more of his supporters at any odd time in the middle of the election cycle. However, let’s keep in mind that over a fourth of the people who voted against Chen the first time neglected to vote against him this time. We certainly don’t have any reason to believe that many people who voted for Chen in 2020 changed their minds and voted against him this time.

I know that some will object that Chen and his supporters should have mobilized more to defend his seat. However, I believe that the burden of proof should be on the side trying to overturn the previous result, not on the incumbent. At any rate, Chen demonstrated that he maintains most of his previous support. The recall side did not demonstrate any massive change in public opinion.

A successful recall should provide a clear repudiation of a previous electoral result. This recall failed to do that. It was much easier to defeat Chen Po-wei in a recall than in the general election. That is an institutional failure.

Reforming the Recall Law

February 6, 2021

The recall vote against Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Chieh failed miserably today. Under the current law, there are two ways a recall can fail. This one failed both ways. At least 25% of the eligible voters must vote for the recall, and only 19.0% actually did so. Moreover, 10,000 more people voted against the recall than voted for it. This was a decisive repudiation of the recall, and one might wonder why it even got this far. However, perhaps the real takeaway is that the current recall law is so permissive that even someone as popular as Huang Chieh is vulnerable.

This marks the fourth major recall vote since the new law was passed in November 2016. (There have also been many recalls for grassroots offices.) Two have passed, and two have failed. This new law has proven to be a disaster, and it should be modified to make recalls much more difficult.

 25% thresholdyesnoPass?
Huang Kuo-chang638884869321748no
Han Kuo-yu57499693909025051yes
Wang Hao-yu81940845827128yes
Huang Chieh728925526165391no

Let’s think about the rationale for fixed terms in political offices. On the one hand, you want politicians to be responsive to public opinion, so holding regularly schedules elections is a good idea. On the other hand, you don’t want a constant election. You have a contest, there is a winner, and the matter is settled for a period of time. We can all return to normal life. A recall is an emergency mechanism to be used in extreme circumstances when the elected official has violated public trust in some dramatic way such that there is overwhelming opposition to that person staying in office – including among large numbers of people who supported them in the first place. It isn’t a mechanism to overturn an electoral result you don’t like the first time someone loses a small sliver of their support.

What would be an appropriate time to recall someone? Remember former legislator Lin Yi-shih, who was guilty of sensational corruption? They fished garbage bags of cash out of the fish pond in front of his home in front of cameras from all the TV news stations. “014” (which sounds like his name) became nationally recognized shorthand for corruption. Lin was already out of office by that point, but imagine he had still been in office and prosecutors said that it would take several years to go through all the legal hurdles to remove him from office. Lin’s actions were a major breach of trust with his voters, since almost none of them voted for him with the expectation that he would engage in bribery or embezzlement. It certainly wasn’t one of the things he said he would do in his campaign slogans. Voters would certainly have been justified in recalling him. Alternatively, imagine a DPP legislator elected in a deep green district in Tainan who announced a month after taking office that she had decided to quit the DPP and join the KMT. This would mean opposing almost everything the voters had supported and supporting almost everything they had opposed. Again, this breach of trust would justify a recall.

What have the four recall targets done to violate trust with their voters? Have they fundamentally betrayed the ideals they presented to their voters in their original campaigns? The campaign against Huang Kuo-chang was fueled by people opposed to gay marriage. Huang had always supported this, so his actions inside the legislature should not have surprised anyone. The reasons given for recalling Wang Hao-yu and Huang Chieh are similarly lousy. They have acted in ways entirely consistent with how they presented themselves during their campaigns. Their recalls are fueled almost entirely by revenge for Han Kuo-yu’s recall. Han is the only one for whom there is even a plausible case. During the 2018 campaign, Han promised to put politics aside and concentrate 100% on economics. I don’t recall if he explicitly promised not to run for president before the election, but he certainly did make that promise repeatedly in the six months before he changed his mind and decided to run. Because he was running for president, he also was effectively an absentee mayor after promising to work hard to solve problems. On the other hand, being so nationally popular that your party demands you run for president is not generally seen as a breach of trust with the people who elected you. Han retained quite a lot of support in Kaohsiung. He got 611,000 votes in Kaohsiung in the presidential election, which is to say that about two out of every three people who supported him in 2018 still supported him in 2020 (for a higher office). In a telephone poll conducted just after he was recalled, 37% expressed satisfaction with his performance as mayor against 49% who were dissatisfied. That’s not great, but it’s also not a disaster. Did he deserve to be recalled? In my mind, probably not. At best, it’s a borderline case.

The current law makes it very easy to recall officeholders. This law has some roots in the Sunflower movement. After that upheaval, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Lin Hung-chih, Wu Yu-sheng, Chang Ching-chung, and Tsai Cheng-yuan. Under the old law, the signature requirements for recalls were much more difficult, and Tsai Cheng-yuan was the only one who they actually managed to put on the ballot. However, the threshold for successfully recalling someone was also much higher – turnout had to be at least 50% of eligible voters. Tsai ignored the recall, and they fell far short of the required threshold. We should note that all of the recall targets lost their seats in the 2016 election. However, there is no evidence that any of them were overwhelmingly unpopular among the people who originally elected them. Still, the activists were convinced that their recalls SHOULD have succeeded, so the logical conclusion was that the threshold was too high. Many of those activists would end up in the New Power Party, which strongly supported the 2016 revision.

The other major force supporting the new law was the Taiwan independence wing of the DPP. They had never been interested in recalls, but they have always been interested in referendums. Prior to the revision, referendums failed for the same reason that recalls did. Turnout had to be 50%, and the side against the referendum simply wouldn’t vote. That meant that the side supporting the measure had to supply all 50%, and this had always been an insurmountable barrier. Ok, but what do recalls have to do with referendums? ROC political theory puts them in the same basket. In his Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen said that people have the right to “election, recall, initiative, and referendum” 選舉罷免創制複決 and this phrase is the title of Chapter 12 of the ROC constitution. For most of ROC history, these “sacred” rights were ignored or grossly violated, but people (ironically, including people who would vomit at the idea that they were following ROC ideology) have internalized the idea that they are somehow related. It wasn’t much of a stretch to adopt the same thresholds for referendum and recall. The 2016 reform was based on the idea that the problem was that the people against the proposal were killing it by “unfairly” not turning out to vote, so they simply cut the threshold in half. Now, all proponents have to do is produce more “yes” votes than “no” votes and supply “yes” votes equal to 25% of the eligible voters.

This new law has fundamentally changed the strategy of recalls. In the past, officeholders could generally just ignore recalls. With the lower threshold, every recall has to be taken seriously. It is now much easier to recall someone than to elect someone.

Turnout in Taiwanese elections is usually 60-75%. In a single-seat race, if the winner gets a majority, that usually comes to 35-45% of eligible voters. Critically, the loser might also get 25-35% of eligible voters. That is, the losing side might not have enough support to win a general election, but they might have enough support to recall the winner from office.

Of course, it is difficult to turn out all your potential supporters. Mobilization is hard. Campaigns are enormously complex and expensive, and they take lots of time and energy. This is especially true in a recall campaign when the entire society hasn’t been building toward the excitement of a national election for several months. Just because the opposition theoretically has enough potential support to successfully recall the winner doesn’t mean they can actually produce it.

Politicians facing a recall have two choices: ignore it or fight it. If you ignore the recall, you are betting that the other side can’t mobilize 25% of eligible voters against you. You also are declining to divert precious resources – time, energy, manpower, money – away from your normal political priorities toward this unwanted political fight. However, since the other side usually has a pool of at least 25%, so you have to be confident that they are not competent enough to mobilize those votes.

Fighting – trying to mobilize your own supporters so that “no” votes outnumber “yes” votes – is also an unattractive option. As noted, mobilization is expensive. You’d almost certainly rather spend your time and money pursuing the normal duties of your office. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to mobilize your side without also helping to mobilize the other side. When you put up ads or hold marches, you might excite your own supporters to go out to vote. However, you are also reminding people from the other side that there is an upcoming recall vote. The more you mobilize, the more you help them get to that 25% threshold. This means that you really have to think you can defeat the recall the other way, by getting more “no” votes. This is usually also problematic. Most recall targets are at least a little unpopular – that’s usually why they were targeted in the first place. Even if they have a partisan advantage in their district, their party supporters might not enthusiastic about turning out. Everyone is busy and has other things to do. If the opposition is enthused (as oppositions usually are) and voters are ambivalent about the incumbent (as they often are), it is entirely plausible that a recall could succeed. It’s also entirely plausible that the incumbent would win the seat again in a hypothetical general election held the next day.

Wang Hao-yu and Han Kuo-yu both chose to ignore the recall. Their choice was easy since both of them faced districts in which the other party had a clear partisan advantage. There was simply no way they were going to mobilize enough “no” votes to defeat the recall. Their only hope was that the “yes” side wouldn’t be able to get to 25%. They both lost this bet. Huang Chieh chose to fight. Her district has a clear green majority, so she could expect that there were enough potential “no” votes to defeat the recall if she was able to effectively mobilize. (The recall campaign also made it clear that she is generally well liked in her district.) Huang Kuo-chang came from a tossup district. He didn’t really make a clear choice. He said he was fighting and tried to mobilize “no” votes. However, he didn’t really have much mobilization capacity, and his turnout was pathetic. Fortunately for him, the other side wasn’t much better. There were far more “yes” votes than “no” votes, but they fell far short of the 25% threshold so the recall failed.

What we see is that strategies are largely determined by the nature of the district. You would hope that recalls would cross party lines since everyone could agree that the lousy politician had fundamentally betrayed the public trust, but that isn’t what has happened so far. The permissive rules encourage partisan recalls against politicians who don’t really deserve this political harassment.

Han Kuo-yu’s case illustrates another problem with the current law. When an incumbent chooses to ignore the recall, there is no constructive role for his supporters. They might think the recall is disgusting, but they are discouraged from mobilizing “no” votes. After all, their best bet is low turnout. Instead, they will be tempted to try to depress turnout. In a normal election, campaigns encourage everyone to vote. They can’t be sure everyone hearing their message will actually vote for their preferred candidate – the ballot is secret – but they can assume that most people listening to them will vote the “right” way. This produces a virtuous circle in which everyone encourages voting and works to ensure that all of their supporters can vote. Recalls are different. If only one side is mobilizing, opponents can assume that everyone voting is on the other side. They have a strong incentive to set up as many barriers, formal or informal, to voting as possible. In Han’s recall, the city government tried to limit the number of polling places to discourage voting. Han’s side certainly wouldn’t have minded if a shortage of poll workers caused long lines. The Central Election Commission eventually stepped in to ensure that there would be an adequate number of adequately staffed polling places, but the incentives against good election administration are embedded in the recall law. There were also persistent rumors that Han supporters – even organized crime gangs – would monitor who voted and enforce various types of punishments. Nothing eventually came of these rumors, but a healthy democracy should not want to encourage this sort of thing. The mere idea of voter intimidation erodes trust in the system. It would be far better to give opponents a constructive role.

The current law is bad enough for single-seat districts, but it is indefensible in multi-seat districts such as the ones city councilors are elected in. The basic premise of this electoral system is that voters vote FOR someone, not AGAINST someone. If a district has ten seats, each voter gets one vote and the ten candidates with the most votes win seats. If 7% of voters love the Bewildered Alpaca Party and vote to elect a Bewildered Alpaca candidate, it doesn’t matter how the other 93% feel about her. They can vote to elect their own damn candidates. The system is designed to empower relatively small slices of the electorate. Both Wang Hao-yu (Green Party) and Huang Chieh (New Power Party) were elected as small party candidates. (They have both since left those parties, but their party switching did not seem to motivate the recalls against them.)

However, while the election law is semi-proportional, the recall law is majoritarian. To pass a recall, you need 25% of the eligible voters. To defeat a recall, you need more “no” votes than the other side can muster. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter much that the Bewildered Alpaca Party has 7% support. What matters is the other 93%. There is basically no way the Bewildered Alpaca Party can defeat this recall. This law is designed to crush small parties.

The current recall law should not be used in multi-seat districts.

A Proposal

The recall law should be modified to make recalls much, much more difficult. The goal should be that recalls will only succeed in extreme cases. Most recalls should fail.

I propose that recall targets should be able to defeat the recall by any one of three ways:

  1. If the number of “yes” votes is less than 35% of eligible voters, the recall fails.
  2. If the number of “no” votes is greater than the number of votes the first loser got won in the general election, the recall vote fails.
  3. If the number of “yes” vote is not greater than the number of “no” votes times one plus the number of seats in the district [“no” * (m+1)], the recall fails.

Why 35%? Since most general elections have a turnout somewhere around 70%, half of 70% (ie: a majority of normal turnout) seems like a reasonable threshold. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to reach this threshold in a recall. Alternatively, this threshold could be set at half the turnout in the district in the previous general election. However, this would produce a different threshold in every district and every election. 35% is arbitrary, but it is consistent and easy to understand.

In Han Kuo-yu’s recall, there was a possibility that Han could be recalled by as few as 574,996 votes. Recall that 892,545 people voted for Han in 2018. His side complained that 574,996 people shouldn’t be able to overrule 892,545 people, and they had a good point. Perhaps the recall threshold should have been 892,546. However, there are two problems with this argument. First, Han didn’t need that many votes to win the 2018 election. He beat his main opponent by roughly 150,000 votes. Why should he be penalized for winning by so much? A more reasonable threshold would be 742,240, one more than Chen Chi-mai won. Second, the premise of a recall is that the incumbent doesn’t still have the same support as they enjoyed in the general election. If they can still demonstrate they do, in fact, have that much support, they should not be recalled. Instead of looking at the “yes” votes, we should look at the “no” votes. If Han could have turned out 742,240 “no” votes, it shouldn’t matter how many people voted “yes.”

Rule #3 is more complicated. Another basic idea is that the “yes” side has the burden of demonstrating an “overwhelming” level of support for the recall, but the meaning of “overwhelming” has different meanings in different contexts. Another basic idea is that opponents of the recall should be given a way to constructively oppose the recall within the system. Their votes should be crucial.

In normal elections, winning by one vote is sufficient. Recalls are extraordinary. Winning by one vote should not be sufficient. In a single-seat district (m=1), the recall would require at least twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. Most incumbents could easily manage to defend their seat under this rule. You would have to be extremely unpopular to fail to mobilize enough “no” votes to make it impossible to for other side to get twice as many “yes” votes. Of course, that’s the goal. Only extremely unpopular incumbents need worry.

This rule also makes recall possible in multi-seat districts. Theoretically, if you can get 1/(m+1) percent of the valid votes in your district, you are guaranteed to win a seat in this electoral system. Recall the Bewildered Alpaca Party. Their 7% isn’t theoretically large enough to guarantee victory in a general election, but in practice it will almost always be enough. In their ten-seat district, the other side needs to produce eleven times as many “no” votes as “yes” votes to recall their incumbent. Suddenly, the 7% of the electorate who are Bewildered Alpaca supporters can hope to defend their seat. The other 93% might really dislike them, but as long as the BAP can mobilize they have a reasonable shot at setting the threshold high enough to stay in office. This also puts the onus on the pro-recall side to produce a strong turnout to show that the incumbent really is horribly unpopular.

Let’s look at Wang Hao-yu’s recall. 84,582 voted to recall him, just a hair over the 81,940 threshold. Only 7,128 people showed up to vote “no,” but of course there wasn’t really any incentive for opponents to turn out. I think the 84,582 “yes” votes are pretty unconvincing in and of itself, especially considering how blue Chungli is. More importantly, it’s pretty unlikely that more than a handful of those 84,582 people voted for Wang in the general election. Why should their dislike of him matter now? There are eleven seats in this district, so my rule would require “yes” to twelve times as large as “no.” Even with the anemic turnout, Wang’s “no” vote is sufficient to (barely) defeat the recall. That is, he would have been able to defeat this frivolous recall while barely lifting a finger.

Wait, there’s more. Imagine that the “yes” side had produced a more impressive result. After all, Wang was elected from a tiny party; it isn’t implausible that most voters actively dislike him. In the general election, about 170,000 people voted for candidates other than Wang. What if 170,000 people had voted to recall him? By Rule #3, he could defeat that by getting 14,200 “no” votes. He got over 16,000 votes in the general election, but getting 14,000 votes in a recall is probably a lot harder than getting 16,000 votes in a recall. Rule #2 gives him another way to defeat the recall. The first loser in his district, the one who came in 12th, got 9508 votes. As long as Wang could mobilize 9509 “no” votes, he could defeat the recall and keep his seat. I’m confident he could have managed that. In other words, Wang was probably popular enough that his seat should have been impregnable.

One more case. Let’s think about former president Chen Shui-bian. Chen was elected president in 2000 in a three-way race. The KMT was unable to coordinate its support on a single person, so Chen won with only 39% of the vote. Under the current rules,* that election wouldn’t have settled anything. We’d have had a recall effort start the day after the election, the KMT would have overturned the election, there would have been a by-election, there would have been no guarantee of a different outcome, but there would have been very bitter feelings all around. It would have been a disaster for democracy. You just shouldn’t get a do-over. You get one chance to settle on a candidate, and you have to live with the results of that decision. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns.

[*OK, technically not. There is a separate law for presidential elections, and they did not change the recall provisions for that one. This is an illustration.]

My proposed rules would help deal with this problem. Rule #3 says that a recall would have to produce twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. If Chen could maintain his 39% support, he would be able to defeat a recall. That is, even in a three-way race, a recall wouldn’t be inevitable. What if it had been a four-way or five-way race and Chen had won with only 31%? Rule #2 says that as long as the incumbent can mobilize as many “no” votes as the top loser got, the recall is defeated. This might require the incumbent to get some support from one of the smaller parties, but it would be doable. That is, there would be a path for the incumbent to defeat the recall as long as they weren’t horribly unpopular.

We want elections to resolve political conflicts, at least temporarily. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns. The current recall law should be significant modified to make recalls much more difficult.

Han is recalled

June 6, 2020

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.

Han recall, four weeks out

May 12, 2020

A little less that four weeks before the Kaohsiung mayoral recall vote, it isn’t looking really great for Mayor Han.

Remember, two conditions are necessary for the recall to succeed. Yes votes must outnumber no votes, and yes votes must be at least 25% of the eligible voters. The overall turnout rate does not matter.

There is a moderate amount of polling from pollsters of varying quality. However, the results are startlingly consistent. The wonderful Wikipedia editors have collected five polls since the beginning of February.

pollster date turnout yes no Turnout + yes
Apple May 8 47.7 51.3 33.0 37.3
INA May 5 47.5 55.1 32.0 36.0
NPP Apr 20 43.7 52.1 35.2 33.2
TBT Mar 20 51.2 59.5 34.5 39.5
TVBS Feb 7 44 53 32 34.8

All of them show that around 45-50% of respondents say they will vote. By about a 5 to 3 margin, people saying they will vote yes outnumber people who say they will vote no. There are some undecided voters, but with such a large margin of yes over no, it seems pretty unlikely that Han can defeat the turnout by mobilizing all his supporters to vote no.

If the first condition is likely to be satisfied, that means that Han’s best chance is for the yes votes to fall below 25% of eligible voters. These polls all show votes for the recall in the mid to high 30s, well above that threshold.

Of course, survey respondents always tell pollsters that they will turn out to vote. If memory serves me correctly, in the recent presidential election, in most polls somewhere around 90% of respondents claimed that they planned to vote. In fact, turnout was just under 75%. However, I think that turnout near 50% is not an unreasonable expectation. Lots of by-elections for legislators or even township mayors get 40% turnout, so it doesn’t seem unlikely at all that you would get 50% turnout for such a high-profile recall as this. There two reasons for this. One is that higher offices produce higher turnout. Direct municipalities are springboards to the presidency. All things equal, we should expect more interest in this race than in a legislative or township mayor race. Moreover, Han is an extremely well-known politician who arouses strong feelings.

In other words, if nothing dramatic changes between now and June 6, I think it is pretty likely that the recall will succeed.


Han has thus far tried a few things to turn back the recall. First, he has tried mobilizing his own loyal supporters to come out and vote no. He has some very loyal and ardent fans, but the polls show little promise for this strategy. Second, he has tried positioning himself as a serious and conscientious mayor who is concerned with public health. I don’t think this is working either. Attitudes about Han were baked pretty solidly during the presidential election; I doubt he can reshape his image this quickly with this little media attention. Third, he has tried to suppress turnout through his control over the city government machinery. Lots of the usual polling places have tried to refuse to be available as a polling place this time, claiming that serving as a polling place would clash with their anti-Covid responsibilities. I don’t think this is going to work either. On the one hand, the Central Election Commission is working hard to ensure that there are enough polling places available. On the other hand, voters who think that a politician is trying to deprive them of their right to vote often turn out in even higher numbers. The wider KMT is not going to actively support vote suppression tactics either. Neither party has a tradition of vote suppression, and being tarred with that label could have devastating long-term consequences.


Han’s best hope is that the Covid-19 pandemic will scare large numbers of voters into thinking that it is too dangerous to turn out. That is, actively trying to suppress the vote might not work, but passively (or through underground murmurs) hoping that people are scared might work. What would really help Han is if there were a few cases of domestic transmission over the next few weeks to terrify voters. In a nutshell, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) is making Han’s recall more likely by successfully keeping Taiwan virus-free.

There is a high-stakes game going on with relaxing restrictions. Every time the government announces a relaxation – allowing more fans into baseball games, encouraging tourism, relaxing social distancing on public transportation – it sends a message to Kaohsiung voters that society is safe. The safer people feel, the more likely it is that they will come out to vote. However, relaxing restrictions simultaneously makes it more likely that any person who has the virus and is out in society will infect a higher number of people. News of such a disaster would almost certainly lower turnout and might push the number of yes votes below 25%. Of course, I don’t think the government’s primary consideration is the Kaohsiung recall, but the success or failure of that recall may nonetheless depend on the success or failure of their relaxation measures.


I love the irony of Han’s fate depending on governance. Han is a populist who claimed that the DPP government was hopelessly corrupt and therefore bad at governing. Now, his best (only?) chance of survival is if the DPP government, which has been so glaringly competent for the last year and a half, suddenly morphs into the incompetent regime of Han’s rhetoric. On the other hand, if it was an ungrounded attack all along, Han is probably doomed. President Tsai’s good governance crushed his populism in the presidential election, and now even better performance from her administration this year might be the death blow to his mayorship.


The recall aftermath, part 2

December 25, 2017

In my previous post, I noted that since there haven’t been many recalls, we don’t really know how to interpret the results. I suggested that, for the time being, I was using the working assumption that recall votes were very similar to normal party votes in a by-election, at least for the “yes” side.

Let me explain that a bit more. I am considering two basic mobilization stories. In one, the KMT and ambitious KMT politicians are the main actors. They appeal to their normal networks, so the pattern of yes votes should look basically like a KMT party vote. In the other story, the mobilization is done by social activists. The marriage traditionalists might have some allies in the KMT or in traditional KMT networks, but they also have their own connections. Equally importantly, even when they ally with the KMT, they can’t tap into all of the KMT strength. As a result, if this is the dominant group, the pattern of yes votes will look quite a bit different from an ordinary KMT vote.

When I wrote the previous post, I still only had the numbers for the seven administrative districts in New Taipei 12. To be honest, these numbers weren’t much more illuminating than the overall result. Seven subgroups isn’t a whole lot, and nearly two-thirds of the population is concentrated in one of those districts, Xizhi. However, just about the time I finished that post, the Central Election Commission released the precinct-level data. So now we can dig more carefully into the results and see if the yes votes do, in fact, look like they are simply a reflection of KMT mobilization.

Let’s start with those district-level results.

  yes eligible Yes% turnout
overall 48693 251191 0.191 0.278
Jinshan 2614 18072 0.143 0.235
Wanli 2707 18434 0.146 0.212
Xizhi 33907 157860 0.209 0.306
Pingxi 674 4362 0.159 0.221
Ruifang 5865 33333 0.177 0.239
Shuangxi 1535 8000 0.197 0.261
Gongliao 1391 11130 0.126 0.191

Turnout was much higher in Xizhi than everywhere else. This is reasonable. Xizhi is overwhelmingly urban; it is a lower-cost suburb of Taipei City. Most of the people with residences there actually live in Xizhi (and many commute to work in Taipei every day). Very few people have to make an effort to go home to vote since they are already home. In contrast, the rest of the district is mostly rural and relatively hard to get to. Many of the people with household registration in these places actually live somewhere else. For them, going back home to vote (in a relatively low-salience recall election) is more of a burden. Still, because of the difference in turnout, Xizhi has 63.6% of eligible voters but produced 69.6% of the yes votes.

In the above table, the column yes% is the number of yes votes divided by eligible voters (not valid votes). However, if we want to argue that recall votes are simply a matter of mobilizing previous party votes, we need to control for party support. I went back to the 2016 legislative election and looked at the votes for two candidates: KMT nominee Lee Ching-hua and Faith and Hope League nominee Chen Yung-shun. If you recall, the Faith and Hope League’s main issue was opposition to marriage equality and many of their leading figures had originally belonged to the KMT, so I think it is reasonable to group their 4892 votes together with the KMT’s 68318 to get our potential base of support. The following table shows the percentage of eligible voters won by these two candidates in 2016, the percentage of eligible voters who voted yes in 2017, and the ratio of these two numbers:

  李陳% Yes% ratio
Overall 0.291 0.191 0.654
Jinshan 0.261 0.143 0.547
Wanli 0.279 0.146 0.522
Xizhi 0.295 0.209 0.707
Pingxi 0.300 0.159 0.531
Ruifang 0.316 0.177 0.560
Shuangxi 0.288 0.197 0.682
Gongliao 0.234 0.126 0.540

Overall, the yes side mobilized 65.4% of the previous votes. It was higher in Xizhi (70.7%) and much lower (between 52-56%) nearly everywhere else. Shuangxi is the glaring exception. In Shuangxi, the yes side mobilized 68.2%, nearly matching Xizhi. What happened there? I don’t have any idea. However, I will note that this is not exactly consistent with a KMT mobilization led by ambitious city councilors. The two people most likely to benefit from a recall are the two KMT councilors from Xizhi. However, their district includes only Xizhi, Jinshan, and Wanli. If they were behind this, I would have expected Jinshan or Wanli to be the outlier, not Shuangxi. Whatever the story in Shuangxi is, it isn’t that one. This looks more like the social movement story, in which the marriage traditionalists have a particularly strong organization in Shuangxi.

Anyway, let’s turn to Xizhi. I’m going to focus on Xizhi and ignore the rest of the electoral districts for three reasons. First, Xizhi is much bigger than the other places. Because of its size, the fate of the recall was determined here, not in the outlying areas. Second, I’m going to use maps, and the teeny areas with dense populations in Xizhi would be nearly impossible to see on a map of the entire district. (Also, I’m lazy, and it is easier to use a single shapefile than to combine seven.) Third, I know Xizhi in much more detail than I know the other areas in New Taipei 12. Because I have so much more local knowledge about Xizhi, I can tell a much more informative story. I’m sure the rest of map is equally interesting, but I don’t have the skills to read it.

Xizhi map

Most towns have one main population center, but Xizhi has three distinct centers. The traditional downtown area is in the eastern part of the city along the three train stations. About half the population lives in this area, which is as similar in population density to Taipei City. The other two centers are on the western edge, and they are really lower-cost extensions of Taipei City. South of the river, about 10% of the population lives in an area that is an extension of Nangang. This area is geographically cut off from the rest of Xizhi. The main road in and out of this area is Academia Road in Taipei City. On the west side of the road, you have Academia Sinica and a few Nangang neighborhoods. There is a tiny river that runs about a block east of the road that forms the border between Nangang and Xizhi, so the eastern half of these neighborhoods around Academia Sinica is in Xizhi. North of the river, there is a bigger urban center that comprises about 25% of Xizhi’s population. This neighborhood is an extension of Taipei’s Neihu District. More specifically, it borders Eastern Neihu (Donghu 東湖). One small two-lane road is the main conduit between Donghu and downtown Xizhi. I’ve never driven this road during morning rush hour, but it’s already pretty miserable during the off-hours. Freeway #1 runs right through this area, but there is (infuriatingly) no easy access to it. Nonetheless, this area is significantly cheaper than Donghu, and the population has more than doubled over the past two decades. The three li on the eastern edge of this area 湖蓮里、湖光里、湖興里 are a bit different from the rest of the gritty neighborhoods north of the river. These three li are filled with gated communities and townhouses, so they are quite a bit wealthier than their adjacent areas.

Now that you have a firm grasp of Xizhi geography, let’s look at the election results. This map is NOT the raw data. It is the ratio from the last column of the above table. That is, it is looking at how many yes votes there were, controlling for how many votes the KMT and FH League won in 2016. If the yes side was actually a disguised party effort, then it should have simply mobilized about 70% of the KMT/FH vote in every li. If it was not, then we might see some variations. In fact, you can see at a glance that there is a distinct geographical pattern. The yes side turned out far more of the KMT/FH vote in the eastern (downtown) area than in the western (overflow suburbs) area. The gap is pretty large, about 10-15%. In the east, most li are in the high 70s; in the west, they are in the mid 60s. For whatever reason, the yes side turned out far more votes in the downtown Xizhi area than anywhere else.

recall 2017 xizhi yes_kf.png

[Quick aside. There are two conspicuously green li 義民里、禮門里 right downtown in the sea of red. These two lightly populated li are dominated by the traditional market street that runs behind the main road, though so is the very red li 仁德里 to their east. Turnout in these two li was not markedly lower than in adjacent li. However, a much higher percentage of voters cast a “no” ballot. In 禮門里, the no side actually beat the yes side 146-142. This was one of only six li in the entire New Taipei 12 district in which no beat yes. I don’t have any explanation for the high proportion of no votes in these two li, though I will note that Huang Kuo-chang has an office in one of them. Maybe his staff made the mistake of working too hard in the surrounding neighborhood and ignoring more distant areas.]


Does this lopsided map suggest that the yes vote was actually driven by a social organization and not the KMT? It certainly is consistent with that story. A new group with no previous experience has to try to mobilize voters wherever it can reach them. One obvious strategy is to go where the voters are. Downtown Xizhi has the most voters, and many of them commute to work on the train. Camping out at the train stations and haranguing commuters is an obvious strategy. It certainly is more appealing than trying to talk to people commuting to work in individual cars or buses on the western edge of town. It might also be that the yes side had more previous connections in downtown Xizhi. Perhaps many of their church members live there. If you are a brand-new organization, you play to your strengths. Parties are a bit different. Parties have a long-term orientation, and they have spent decades filling in the weak areas. Parties should have connections everywhere, not just in the city centers. My first impression on looking at this map was that it looks like the work of a hastily organized social movement, not the effort of an established party organization.

However, there is a bit more to the story. The two people who stand to benefit the most from Huang’s recall are the two KMT city councilors, Pai Pei-ju 白珮茹 and Liao Cheng-liang 廖正良. Perhaps we should look at them more closely.

First, let’s look at Pai Pei-ju’s vote share in the 2014 city council election. Her support is concentrated on the western edge of Xizhi, especially in the extension Donghu north of the river. Her pattern of support doesn’t look anything like the pattern of yes votes.

cc2014 Pai Pei ju.png

However, Liao is a different story. His support is on the east side, especially in downtown Xizhi. His map looks very similar to the yes vote. (The three more affluent li north of the river are the most notable outliers.)

cc2014 Liao Cheng liang.png

What does this suggest? To me, it looks like only part of the KMT mobilized to support the yes side. Pai Pei-ju may have sat on her hands, while Liao Cheng-liang went all out trying to recall Huang. The relative weakness of the yes side outside of Liao’s core suggests that most of the KMT machinery also held back. The social groups may have drummed up some support to augment Liao’s base (such as in the three affluent li), but this looks mostly like Liao was the driving force turning out higher numbers of voters in downtown Xizhi.

Some media report indicate that this may indeed be what happened. Liao is frequently mentioned in reports of the pre-recall campaign activities, while Pai rarely is. The KMT seems to have had an internal debate about how to approach the recall. While Hung Hsiu-chu was still chair, she apparently wanted to go all-in on the recall. However, Chair Wu Den-yi has been much more cautious about getting too involved. For one thing, marriage is a thorny topic that cuts across party lines, and the KMT grassroots workers seem to have been reluctant to get too involved. [Note: this doesn’t mean that a majority supports marriage equality. You can’t afford to offend a minority of your network, even if that minority is only a third or a fourth of the people. Neighborhood chiefs (lizhang) prefer to emphasize valence issues (things that everyone likes) such as local development, not divisive things like marriage equality.] For another, the KMT was unsure about how an unsuccessful recall campaign would be interpreted. Finally, I found this article which states explicitly that Pai has been sitting on her hands. Pai’s political base is in the farmers association. [Her father served a term in the legislature on the KMT party list as a representative of farmers associations.] While Liao presents himself to the public as an orthodox KMT member (all his ads cloak him in ROC symbols), Pai’s ads present her is much less overly partisan pink and light blue themes. To put it another way, Liao presents himself as a member of the Chinese KMT, while Pai presents herself more in the tradition of the Taiwanese KMT. I don’t know if that reflects their actual positions, but that is the vibe they send out. The article echoes this difference, suggesting that many of Pai’s allies in the farmers’ association are actually quite sympathetic to Huang, and that is why she was hesitant to dive in to the recall effort.


To put it more generally, I no longer believe the yes vote was simply two-thirds of the normal KMT vote. Instead, it was the result of differing efforts by various parts of the (diverse) KMT coalition, plus an outside social group. Some parts of the KMT went all out, while other parts held back. The national KMT leadership hesitatingly endorsed the recall, but it deliberately kept enough distance to decouple the result from any interpretations about the KMT’s or President Tsai’s current popularity.

If this interpretation is correct, the recall effort did not max out its potential. If President Tsai or Huang Kuo-chang had been somewhat less popular, the people who held back, like Pai Pei-ju, would have been much more likely to eagerly dive into the fray. Those 48,000 yes votes might have gone a lot higher. (Remember, 24.2% of eligible voters voted yes against Alex Tsai in 2015 in a district with a clear blue advantage, while only 19.1% did against Huang this time in a district with a much more even partisan balance.) In this recall, the yes side was 15,000 votes short of the threshold, and that is a large number. It’s doubtful that Pai Pei-ju has that many votes in her pocket ready to be mobilized. However, if she and all of the other KMT figures throughout NT12 had plunged in enthusiastically, they might have come close.

The lesson that many people will probably take from this recall is that it is hard to successfully recall a legislator. That’s too strong. This result shows that it is hard to recall a legislator who has performed reasonably well in a tossup district when there hasn’t been a clear national partisan swing since the previous election. In different circumstances, it looks to me like a recall might have quite a plausible chance of success.

The Recall: Is 48,693 a lot?

December 20, 2017

As readers of this blog likely already know, the recall vote for NPP legislator Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 was held last Saturday. The measure failed, and I keep reminding myself that the top-line result is important in and of itself. Because it failed, Huang probably won’t run for mayor (or if he does, he’ll drop out as soon as he extracts a few concessions from the DPP) and marriage equality won’t suddenly be recast as a toxic issue. Also, Huang will continue to be a legislator, which some people might see as kinda important.

Nevertheless, the top line result isn’t everything. 48,693 people cast votes to recall Huang, while 21,748 cast votes to oppose recalling him. I keep asking myself, are those numbers big or small? To be honest, I’m not really sure.

Maybe a good place to start is by examining the election night reactions. As the vote-counting wound down and the result became clear, the leader of the recall effort and Huang both gave interviews to the TV cameras. Huang spoke like he had been shocked and disappointed. He was contrite and promised to listen to the message that voters had sent. He did not act like a victor. However, Sun Chi-cheng 孫繼正, the leader of the recall effort, didn’t seem that much happier. His body language and mannerisms also struck me as coming from someone who was deeply disappointed with the result. He repeatedly pointed to the cold and rainy weather as an important factor in depressing turnout.* What was most interesting to me was that he never mentioned marriage in his remarks. From his voting night comments, you would have thought that the whole recall was an intellectual exercise in establishing the right of social movements to exercise oversight over elected officials. He made no attempt to claim a popular mandate against marriage equality, even though that was the driving force behind the recall effort. For that matter, Huang did not mention marriage either. To me, this omission suggests that both sides expected to do better and did not want to tarnish their cause by linking it with a poor election result. For what it’s worth, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je also cast shade on the results, implying that Huang had not done very well.

(* The fragile citizens in the rest of the country might be persuaded by the weather argument. As a next-door neighbor of New Taipei 12, I’m not so impressed. It rains all the time in this area. If people stayed indoors every time it rains here, no one would ever go to the market and we’d all starve.)

So the recall side probably expected more than 48,000 yes votes. I’m not sure if Huang and the NPP were more surprised by how many people cast yes votes or how few people cast no votes. It seems clear to me that they were disappointed with at least one of those numbers. Again, I have to ask, should they have been disappointed? Are 48,000 and 21,000 more or less than we should have expected?

One thing to remember is that the main actors in this recall might not have had realistic expectations about how easy or hard it is to produce votes. The NPP is a brand-new party, and unlike the previous three significant small parties (New Party, People First Party, and Taiwan Solidarity Union), the New Power Party is not a splinter party. It isn’t composed of several established politicians with years of electoral experience. NPP members have fought exactly one campaign. In 2016, they won a lot of party votes, but those didn’t really require a lot of grassroots organization and most voters were already turning out to vote for the president. The three district legislators who won, including Huang Kuo-chang, probably overestimated their own efforts (as most people do) and underestimated how much support they “borrowed” from the DPP. The recall election is arguably much more like the 2018 city council elections will be, in which the NPP has to mobilize voters to support it, not simply rely on an alliance with the DPP. The point is, the NPP has yet to contest one of those elections, and they might not yet realize how hard elections are. (Go back and check the optimistic expectations and dismal record of the NP, PFP, and TSU in local elections. Ick.) And if the NPP perhaps had unrealistic expectations, the recall organizers were probably even worse. The Stability Power Alliance 安定力量 is a social group with conservative Christian churches at its core. Its members have even less electoral experience than the NPP. Moreover, social movements always overestimate their support in society and think that their support can translate directly into votes. In short, both sides were disappointed, but I suspect both sides had somewhat unreasonable expectations. I have not made any headway at all in answering my question: Should I be impressed with 48,000 yes votes?


Let’s turn to the electoral record. Unfortunately, this was the first recall vote under the new rules, so there isn’t any recall election history to look to.

(There was a recall vote against Alex Tsai 蔡正元 in February 2015, but that that was under a different set of rules in a highly charged atmosphere and there was no chance that the recall would pass because it needed 50% turnout. I’ll come back to this recall below, but let’s just ignore that vote for the time being.)

I think the closest thing to this recall vote is a legislative by-election. By-elections typically get modest news coverage, as did this recall election. If you think of the partisan vote in a general election as full turnout, both sides typically have enough potential votes to win in a by-election. The problem is turning all those votes out. Even for professional politicians who have dedicated their careers to building connections in society, mobilization is hard. In these elections, rather than looking at the share of valid votes, it is perhaps more illuminating to look at the share major candidates get of the eligible voters. There have been nineteen by-elections since the 2008 election. I’m going to ignore the 2009 Nantou 1 by-election since that was held on the same day as the county magistrate general election and had a turnout of 66.3%, far out of line with the eighteen other by-elections. There are 37 major party candidates in the other eighteen by-elections. (In 2009 Miaoli 1, the DPP did not run a candidate and instead cooperated with the eventual winner, independent Kang Shi-ju 康世儒.) These 37 major party candidates won an average of 18.0% of eligible voters. I think that is a pretty good baseline for how much we might expect a competent partisan campaign to turn out.

By-election eligible KMT% DPP% turnout
2010 Taoyuan 3 233116 0.183 0.195 0.414
2010 Taoyuan 2 241609 0.153 0.222 0.384
2010 Hsinchu Cnty 358854 0.157 0.200 0.360
2015 Miaoli 2 231684 0.203 0.142 0.351
2009 Miaoli 1 253375 0.158 0.327
2010 Taichung 3 257460 0.201 0.246 0.451
2015 Changhua 4 259816 0.134 0.200 0.376
2015 Nantou 2 205390 0.188 0.170 0.371
2009 Nantou 1 (185818) (0.355) (0.287) (0.663)
2009 Yunlin 2 279854 0.105 0.265 0.456
2010 Chiayi 2 221816 0.122 0.259 0.384
2015 Pingtung 3 202129 0.102 0.213 0.324
2010 Taitung 119762 0.177 0.194 0.394
2010 Hualien 197426 0.199 0.168 0.416
2009 Taipei 6 241498 0.191 0.151 0.391
2015 Taichung 6 255203 0.129 0.177 0.308
2013 Taichung 2 275086 0.242 0.237 0.489
2011 Tainan 4 291588 0.105 0.168 0.276
2011 Kaohsiung 4 228805 0.102 0.235 0.340
Ave: 18 elections 0.158 0.202 0.378
Ave: 37 cands


The recall vote against Huang did a hair better than this baseline. The 48,693 yes votes represent 19.1% of all eligible voters in New Taipei 12. That is mildly impressive.

Of course, we now have to ask whether it is reasonable to compare a partisan election with a recall vote. The argument for doing so is that, while the social group was the public face of the recall, we might suspect that the actual muscle behind it was old-fashioned partisanship. There were two KMT city councilors salivating at the prospect of taking Huang’s place in the legislature, and KMT deputy chair Hau Lung-pin campaigned on behalf of the recall. I am reminded of a chat I had with a second-generation KMT politician back in the 1990s, who told me that his father told him to run his first campaign his own way, with lots of idealistic young people putting out lots of policy papers. Then, in the last week, Dad mobilized his own network, bought a ton of votes, and won the election the old-fashioned way. In a similar way, the Christian activists may have just been window dressing distracting us from the low-profile professionals who actually turned out the voters. If this is what happened, then this recall election is a big yawn. In a swing district like New Taipei 12, we should have expected the KMT pro-recall side to produce about 46,000 votes, and they did.


What about the 21,000 no votes? Is that a lot? Let’s remember that there was a lot less motivation to vote no than yes. Most observers expected the recall to fail because the yes side would not reach the 25% threshold, and that is what happened. The no votes did not really affect the outcome. Voting no was more of an expression of support for Huang than a mechanism to determine his fate. Lots of mild supporters may have decided to just sit this one out. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be surprised that there were fewer no votes than yes votes.

I suggested above that this recall vote may have just been a partisan vote in disguise. If that is correct, Huang was probably missing a lot of his 2016 coalition. Let’s not forget that Huang is a NPP member, not a DPP member. The NPP has been vocally and publicly drawing lines between itself and the DPP in recent weeks over the Labor Standards Law, and quite a few DPP politicians and supporters probably aren’t feeling as supportive of Huang and the NPP today as they were 22 months ago. One of the two DPP city councilors (Shen Fa-hui) asked his followers to vote no, but I have no idea if that plea was matched by active efforts. If Huang loses his seat, the two city councilors are first in line, and they will presumably want support from Huang’s sympathizers.

I don’t have a standard to judge the 21,000 no votes. I wouldn’t expect a regular by-election turnout for the no side, and Huang probably didn’t have a “full” partisan effort supporting him. Maybe in the future after a few more recall votes, we will be able to look back and see that this result was fantastic or dismal. Right now, I just don’t know.


I guess my tentative conclusion is that this election was … about normal??


Assuming that by-elections are at all useful in thinking about recalls, can we see any indicators that will tell us about future recalls?

This recall did not come close to passing. The yes side needed 25% of eligible voters, but it only got 19.1%. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future. Of the 37 major party candidates, two have actually broken the 25% barrier. Both were DPP candidates running in deep green districts (Chiayi County 2 and Yunlin 2), and both got over twice as many votes as their opponents. So if a candidate won a three-way race in the other side’s territory, that might be a prime candidate for a recall vote. There aren’t any really obvious examples right now, but in 2012 Chen Shui-bian’s son ran against the DPP incumbent in Kaohsiung 9 and threw the district to the KMT. Under the current law, that KMT legislator would have to worry about a recall.

There are several other candidates who came very close to 25%, including some in competitive races. In Taichung 2 in 2013, Yen Ching-piao’s son (who probably has a name) and the DPP candidate both broke 23%. In 2010 in Taichung 3 (now Taichung 7), both candidates broke 20%. 25% is hard, but it isn’t impossible, even in a competitive district. The more the district leans to one side or the other, the easier it becomes for the dominant side to recall a “mismatched” legislator.

Oh, and remember that recall against Alex Tsai in 2015? 76,737 people voted yes, accounting for 24.2% of eligible voters. Against that figure, the 19.1% voting to recall Huang doesn’t seem so impressive. I think the difference in the two results probably has more to do with the supercharged political atmosphere in early 2015 than the individual candidates, but Tsai is nonetheless one of the few legislators who I consider to be more controversial and disliked by the other side than Huang. Under the current rules, the recall would have needed 79,359 yes votes to pass. I’m fairly sure if they could have gotten the extra 3,000 votes if recall had been a realistic possibility. (In fact, the people who rewrote the recall law might have been thinking along these same exact lines.) However, that doesn’t mean that Tsai or Huang should have been recalled. Tsai was elected as a KMT legislator (with 111,260 votes) and did a lot of KMT things. The district was so furious with him that they … elected another KMT legislator in 2016. Would it really have been appropriate for 80,000 unhappy voters to overturn the decision of 111,260 voters? I don’t have any evidence, but I’m betting that almost all of the 76,359 people who voted to recall Tsai were among the 78,097 people who voted for the DPP candidate or the 39,593 people who voted for the PFP candidate in 2012. They couldn’t coordinate to support one candidate and defeat Tsai in 2012, and when they did cooperate in 2016 they still couldn’t defeat the KMT candidate. It might be easier to agree on who they didn’t want, but eventually the voters have to choose someone as a representative. The recall is seductive as an easy way to get a negative result (removing someone you don’t like), but it doesn’t solve the problem of producing a positive result (agreeing on someone to put in office).

The recall is clearly a mechanism with the potential to be used and abused. Even beyond the potential to remove a legislator, recall can severely damage an incumbent. They have to divert energy away from their normal activities to deal with the harassment, and the result will almost always look bad to most observers. In Huang’s case, the recall may have damaged him by focusing attention on his (supposed) neglect of constituency service, especially in the more outlying areas. It almost certainly makes his 2020 re-election campaign harder. Remember, the post-sunflower recall efforts targeted four legislators. All of them failed, but none of the four legislators was re-elected in 2016. I suspect Huang might be the fifth to survive a recall only to find that he sustained a severe wound.


Who is next? This depends on how the major parties react. As of now, all the recalls have been spearheaded by a social group, and the major parties have (quietly) lent background support. It might be necessary to have some idealistic social movement take the lead. If that is the case, they might not pick their targets so strategically. For example, if the social group’s members are mostly in Taipei, they might have to pick a Taipei legislator even if there is a better target in Chiayi. If the two major parties decide to weaponize the recall mechanism and go after each other’s weaker members, they should target based strictly on vulnerability. We’ll see how this unfolds. Right now, there aren’t a lot of obvious mismatches between the legislator and the district, so I’d expect the two big parties to stay in the shadows. Anyway, here are a few people that could be on a watch list.


  1. Taipei 5, Freddy Lim 林昶佐 (NPP). Freddy is far and away the most obvious target. There is already a social group ready to go, and they have already practiced once. Taipei 5 is not a particularly green district, though there is more support for gay marriage in Taipei City than in the rest of the country. Nonetheless, social conservatives will probably relish the idea of trying to recall a death metal rocker.
  2. Taichung 3, Hung Tzu-yung 洪慈傭 (NPP). Yep, the three NPP district legislators are the top three. Hung’s district is greener than the other two, so it is probably less fertile soil for a recall. However, there is almost certainly less support for gay marriage in Hung’s district than in Taipei City. If they go after Hung before Freddy, that will be a good indicator that the activists –not the partisan politicians – are setting the agenda.
  3. Taoyuan 6, Chao Cheng-yu 趙正宇 (IND). Chao is an independent cooperating with the DPP in a district that had always been heavily blue before 2016. Because he is an independent, attacking him wouldn’t send the same partisan message as attacking a DPP or NPP member. However, he looks more vulnerable to me than any DPP members.
  4. New Taipei 10, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌 (DPP). Chiang won his seat by beating Chang Ching-chung, who (in)famously tried to ram the Services Trade Agreement through committee hearings and touched off the sunflower movement. Chang was severely damaged by the sunflower movement and the subsequent recall effort, so it isn’t yet apparent that Chiang won (as opposed to Chang being tossed out). Zhonghe District is traditionally a very blue area, so Chiang has to be considered as highly vulnerable.
  5. Hsinchu City, Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘 (DPP). The DPP floor leader won his 2016 election fairly convincingly, but Hsinchu City is historically blue territory. Moreover, the NPP and their supporters detest Ker. A recall against him would drive open the divisions between the DPP and NPP and perhaps create some opportunities for the KMT to exploit in the legislature.
  6. Hualien, Hsiao Bi-khim 蕭美琴 (DPP). Hsiao won her seat by beating a lackluster KMT incumbent in a district that voted for the KMT in the presidential race. I have no reason to think that she has done a bad job in office or is unpopular in her district, but there is an obvious partisan mismatch in Hualien.
  7. Changhua 1, Wang Hui-mei 王惠美 (KMT). If the DPP wants to fight back and attack the KMT, there aren’t a whole lot of obvious opportunities. Most of the vulnerable KMT legislators lost in 2016, so the remaining ones are generally in safe seats. Wang is one of the few KMT legislators in a green district. However, she is personally very popular, and it is highly unlikely that a recall effort would get very far. The logic here is harassment. Wang is running for county magistrate in 2018, and a recall effort might undercut that campaign by sapping some of her energy while also giving the impression that she is not a great legislator.
  8. Taichung 8, Chiang Chi-chen 江啟臣 (KMT). Basically the same logic as with Wang, except that Chiang is still contesting the mayoral nomination. Nonetheless, this is one of the greener districts in central Taiwan, so this is prime territory for an attack by the green side.
  9. Taichung 2, Yen Ching-piao’s son 顏清標之子 (KMT). Unlike nearly everyone else on this list, Yen consistently gets terrible ratings from the Citizen’s Congress Watch (as did his father before him). Add in the Yen family association with organized crime, and we finally have someone who might deserve to be recalled. However, Yen has deep local roots, the district is less green than Changhua 1 or Taichung 8, and I personally wouldn’t want to go around his district on a petition drive asking for signatures to recall him.
  10. Kaohsiung 1, Chiu Yi-ying 邱議瑩 (DPP). Chiu is emerging as the most strident DPP voice. When you need a hardline opinion embodying the DPP position or someone to storm the podium, Chiu is your woman. Of course, this recall wouldn’t have a chance in hell. Kaohsiung 1 is deep green territory, and Chiu’s antics probably play fairly well with her constituents. This would be a quixotic move, akin to the recall of Alex Tsai in 2015.


I hope everyone sees a few people on this list who they like. If you think it would be a democratic travesty if that person were recalled, I agree. Recalls should not be part of the normal process. They should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which a legislator has done something to lose support from the people who originally voted for him or her. A NPP/KMT/DPP legislator who does NPP/KMT/DPP things should not be recalled; s/he has not broken the contract with his/her original supporters. The best outcome would be to revise the recall law to increase the threshold. The current system makes recall too easy.

Huang Kuo-chang’s recall vote

November 18, 2017

The Central Election Commission has announced the date – December 16 – for the vote to recall New Power Party legislator Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌, which gives me a convenient opportunity to rant about how stupid the new law is.

Recall that after the Sunflower movement, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠, Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, Alex Tsai 蔡正元, and Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池. All of these efforts failed, and activists believed that the requirements for recall were unreasonably stringent. (The effort may have had some effect. None of the targeted legislators won re-election in 2016.)

When the NPP entered the legislature, one of its first goals was to revise the election law to make recall easier. Strangely, neither of the two big parties put up much resistance, and the revision was passed last December. I’ll steal this table from a UDN article summarizing the main changes:

  Previous law New law
Initiate a petition 2% of eligible voters 1% of eligible voters
Signatory period 30 days 60 days
Advertising Prohibited Allowed
Signatory threshold 13% of eligible voters 10% of eligible voters
Voting day concurrent with other election? Not allowed Allowed
Turnout threshold 50% of eligible voters Abolished
Yes votes Yes > No Yes votes must exceed 25% of eligible voters;

Yes > No

Let’s focus on those last two rows, since they are the most important. Previously, 50% turnout was required to pass a recall. This made it nearly impossible to pass a recall. The legislator could simply advise supporters to ignore the vote and stay at home. That meant that the opposition had to supply 50% of all eligible voters. In normal conditions and in normal districts, this was nearly impossible.

Huang’s district, New Taipei 12, had 251,191 eligible voters in 2016. (It’s probably a few thousand more now since Xizhi is a fast-growing area, but for the sake of simplicity I will ignore that.) This means that to recall Huang under the old law, opponents would have had to mobilize 125,596 votes. In winning the seat, Huang had only gotten 80,508 votes. That was in a general election concurrent with a presidential election, featuring campaign that dominated news in Taiwan for several months. The recall would have to mobilize 50% more votes without the benefit of a general election atmosphere. Not gonna happen.

As I’ve stated before, I think that is exactly how it should be. It should be nearly impossible to overturn an election result. One of the main ideas behind fixed terms is that we don’t need to continually re-litigate elections. We have a general election period, and then the winners get some time to focus on governing. The next election comes along in only a few years, so the wait is not oppressive. There is no need to overturn an election result except in the most exceptionally egregious cases. As a general principle, recalls should be doomed to fail unless most of the people who originally voted for the winner turn against him or her. In most such cases, the legislator will resign unilaterally, and there will be no need for a recall. However, if the legislator has really lost the confidence of his or her original supporters and refuses to step down, a recall may be necessary. In this case, that high threshold might be manageable.

The new law makes recall far too easy. Instead of 125,596 yes votes, recall supporters only need half that number, 62,798. How low is that number? In the 2016, Huang’s main opponent Lee Ching-hwa 李慶華 got 68,318 votes. That was nowhere near enough votes to win the seat, but if every one of those voters supports the recall, they can remove Huang from his seat. Take note, in this scenario, not a single person who originally supported Huang has changed his or her mind. It is now easier to recall Huang than it was to elect him in the first place.

Of course, the previous paragraph is ignoring the difficulties of mobilizing 62,798 yes votes without the atmosphere of a general election. This threshold is still probably unreachable. However, it is low enough that I have some doubts. 63,000 is difficult, but by no means impossible.

This puts Huang Kuo-chang in a difficult position. He now has to decide whether to try to mobilize his supporters to defend his seat. Even if they can pass the 62,798 threshold, he could still keep his seat if he can mobilize his original 80,508 supporters to come out to the polls and vote no. However, mobilization is expensive and difficult. The burden should be on the side trying to recall the legislator, not on the incumbent legislator. They are the ones trying to overturn a previous election result.

In a vacuum, I’d simply advise Huang to ignore the anti-gay marriage groups behind the recall effort. It’s highly unlikely that they have enough penetration in society to mobilize 10,000 votes, much less 63,000. However, there are other politicians making strategic choices. In particular, there are four city councilors who would love to have Huang’s seat. For the two KMT city councilors, this is a golden opportunity. Huang removed the old KMT incumbent, so now they have a wide open seat staring at them if the recall passes. You can bet that they are mobilizing their networks trying to recall Huang. The two DPP city councilors have to be more careful, since many of their supporters also voted for Huang. However, I suspect they wouldn’t be heartbroken if the seat were to come open. The point is, there are a lot of well-connected people who have an interest in Huang’s recall. The anti-gay marriage activists don’t have to supply all 63,000 votes; self-interested politicians will supply a substantial number of yes votes. It’s still a longshot, but it isn’t impossible.

Huang Kuo-chang won over 50% in 2016. Imagine how the calculations would be different for a candidate who had won a three-way race. For example, Tsai Shih-ying 蔡適應 won the Keelung seat with only 41.5% of the vote. He got 78,707 votes, but 111,162 people voted for one of the three blue camp candidates. The threshold in a recall election would only be 74,736, so a successful recall would be quite likely even if no voters who originally supported them had changed their minds. Recall elections are supposed to be tools to remove legislators who have betrayed their electoral contract, not second chances for when one side can’t agree on a single candidate. However, if Huang’s recall succeeds, this is where we are headed. Every legislator elected on the other party’s turf with less than 50% had better start looking over their shoulder.

If there is any ironic justice in this episode, it is that Huang and the NPP brought this recall on themselves. They insisted on drastically revising a law that was working well. At least they are the first ones to face the consequences of their lousy choice. And if the recall does pass, it won’t just be Huang personally who suffers. The outcome will be widely interpreted as an indicator that the general public is not ready for marriage equality, and the NPP will have succeeded in kneecapping one of its most cherished goals. Good going, guys.

Hopefully after the recall vote, the parties will decide to revise the election law again to make recalls harder and end this stupidity. In the meantime, Huang deserves to sweat a bit.







Effort to recall Ker

November 30, 2016

Hey, there’s a bit of election news in Taiwan. As part of the current battle over marriage equality, there are efforts to recall DPP floor leader Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘.

[As an aside, I haven’t paid particularly close attention to Taiwanese politics over the past ten months. Rather, I have watched developments in Europe and America, often rapt in horror. We seem to be on the cusp of a fundamental shakeup in the international order, and, in my darkest nightmares, I worry that a democratic implosion is right around the corner. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or terrifying that Taiwan is preoccupied with “normal” political controversies, such as how to schedule vacation days, blissfully unconcerned that the rest of the world looks like it might be about to go up in flames. Is this oasis of calm one of the few sane spots in the world right now, or is it sticking its fingers in its ears and willfully ignoring the looming storm?]

The Taiwan Law Blog speculates that I do not support the efforts to recall Ker Chien-ming. That is correct, even though I support marriage equality. I explained my general dislike of recalls in the post the Taiwan Law Blog links to, and I stand by that reasoning. When the votes are counted, the election should stop. The battle over who occupies the seat should be settled until the next regularly scheduled election.

Recalls have a role, but they should only be used as a last-ditch resort when an elected official has fundamentally violated the implicit contract with the voters. I do not believe Ker Chien-ming has fundamentally violated his contract with his voters. When he ran, I do not remember him ever taking a public stance on marriage equality. His campaign was about representing the DPP and supporting Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda in the legislature. Marriage equality was merely one, very small part of that agenda. No matter what he does on this issue, it is hard to imagine it constituting a fundamental betrayal of his positions.

What do I think would be justifiable grounds to launch a recall? To give one example, I think South Korean President Park has fundamentally violated her contract with the voters. Massive corruption, allowing an unelected and unappointed spiritual advisor to make major decisions, and all the rest of it were clearly not what the Korean voters had in mind when they voted for her.

To go back to Ker’s case, since Ker’s central appeal was being a good party soldier, if he suddenly emerged as an intransigent opponent of Tsai’s agenda and plotted with the KMT to thwart her proposals, a recall would be justifiable. If we confine the hypothetical to the issue of marriage equality, if Ker had made support for marriage equality a central issue in his campaign but then had decided to throw his support behind a separate law that did not grant full equality, I think that would probably still be defensible and not justify a recall. After all, it is eminently defensible to compromise for 50% or 75% of your original goal. If he did all that, and then we further learned that he had accepted a massive bribe from an opponent of marriage equality to change his position, then a recall would probably be justified. In that case, Ker would have ignored his voters’ demands in favor of the briber’s demands. Ker’s current behavior is nowhere near these thresholds, and I hope the recall effort fizzles out.

The Taiwan Law Blog suggests that, instead of trying to recall Ker, perhaps marriage equality activists should campaign for him to lose his spot as the DPP party whip. I think he and many others are making the same mistake that President Ma made when he tried to purge Speaker Wang in 2013. They are imagining that the party floor leader is pursuing his own agenda.

In fact, what successful floor leaders do is to help the party rank-and-file get what they want. Sometimes, this means that the floor leader has to take some public heat in order to shield the backbenchers from criticism. In the American case, the classic example is from budgetary politics. A house member knows that a particular spending item should be cut but it is also very popular back home. The backbencher needs the speaker to arrange the agenda so that he can tell his voters that he fought hard to keep the item in the budget but he just couldn’t overcome opposition from everyone else. Sometimes, the legislator will even single out the speaker for criticism, and a good speaker understands what is happening and facilitates it. In 2013, President Ma blamed Speaker Wang for not pushing the Services Trade Agreement strongly enough. Ma should have realized that Wang was protecting KMT legislators who did not want to defend support for particular clauses to their voters.

In today’s case, Ker is probably protecting DPP legislators as well. Most DPP legislators have publicly come out in support of marriage equality, probably because they cannot afford to alienate progressive activists and voters. They certainly do not want to alienate young people. (Ask Hillary Clinton if alienating young voters has any costs.) However, Taiwanese society has hardly reached a consensus in support of marriage equality. The surveys I have seen suggest that support and opposition are about evenly split. I am a bit skeptical of these support levels. While elites and young people have mostly come to a consensus on gay marriage, I suspect the rest of society has not. To put it simply, I doubt that Taiwan has wrestled with this issue enough yet. To too many people, homosexuality is simply an idea rather than an everyday reality of many friends and family. There are still a lot of moms and dads my age or older who grew up with the unchallenged assumption that homosexuality was weird and/or wrong, and you can’t simply tell them that they have been prejudiced all their lives. They will need some time and a lot of discussion before they come around. Moving too quickly could cause a backlash, and I suspect that many DPP legislators intuitively grasp that not everyone in society is comfortable with rewriting the social rules just yet. If there were actually overwhelming support for marriage equality in the DPP caucus, Ker would make it happen quickly. He hasn’t been re-elected party whip time and time again because he ignores the rank-and-file’s wishes. If he is stalling or pushing some compromise package, it is almost certainly because they are asking him to do it. Moreover, like any good floor leader, he is taking the public criticism so that they won’t have to.

So what do I suggest for marriage equality activists? Ker Chien-ming is not your problem. Your problem is that you haven’t yet thoroughly sold Taiwanese society on the idea of marriage equality. To put it another way, the DPP caucus looks like it would like to change the law, but activists haven’t done enough work changing minds among ordinary voters to make DPP legislators feel comfortable taking this step. Rather than bullying or threatening Ker Chien-ming, activists should be focusing on broader society, explaining why marriage equality is a good idea that everyone can support. The good news is that the marriage equality side has good arguments and, with a lot of discussion and persuasion, should be able to produce a stronger consensus in society. When that happens, resistance in the legislature will melt away.

The recall

February 16, 2015

The recall effort against Alex Tsai is now over. The turnout rate of 24% was far lower than the necessary 50%, so Tsai will continue in office.


In principle, I believe that recalls should only be used in the most egregious cases. One of the great things about democracy is that it allows a society to make a decision about who will make the important decisions for the next time period and then move on. Once the decision is made, there is no need to keep fighting. In an authoritarian system, this is not the case. Decisions can be reversed at any time, so you can never stop defending your position. Democracies have institutionalized the power struggle so that it will be held at a specific time, according to specific rules, and it has a clear end. After the fight, everyone can move onto other matters.

Recalls threaten to upset that logic. If recalls are too easy, losers have a strong incentive to reopen old fights as soon as possible. For me, the overriding principle of recalls is that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official.

Let’s think about a few hypothetical cases. Case One: In 1992, Fidel Ramos won a seven-way race with only 23% to become the president of the Philippines. In other words, 77% of Filipinos voted for someone else. In a recall you don’t need to agree on an alternative, you only need to agree that you don’t want the current officeholder. All of the losers might have been able to mobilize their backers to throw Ramos out so that they would have another shot at the office. Even if Ramos were brilliant in office and his support only increased and never decreased, opponents would have ample opportunity to recall him. In other words, even if every person who originally voted for Ramos continued to support him, he might be vulnerable to recall. Of course, none of the other six aspirants were very popular either. After the recall and by-election, the new losers (perhaps including Ramos’s supporters) might start all over again with a new recall drive. Happily for the Philippines, this never-ending cycle didn’t happen. Instead, Ramos turned out to be a force for stability, and many people consider “Steady Eddy” to have been the best president in modern Filipino history.

Case Two: In 2004, Taipei City District 2 elected 10 legislators. The eighth and tenth seats were won by the TSU’s David Huang and independent Li Ao, an ultra-Chinese nationalist. These two, coming from opposite extremes of the political spectrum, combined for roughly 12% of the total vote. Suppose a coalition of the mainstream parties decided to launch a recall effort of the middle against the extremes. The 12% who supported the two winners would be utterly helpless to defend their favorite legislator. Even if every person who originally voted for Huang and Li continued to ardently support them, the other 88% of the electorate would be able to easily vote for recall. I’ve ignored the 50% turnout threshold so far, but this mainstream coalition might be able to reach that barrier. Each side would turn out lots of voters who hated the guy from the other side, and some of the moderate voters might also dislike the extremist on their own side. If they explicitly worked together and each major party told its supporters to vote in both recall elections (regardless of whether they voted yes or no), they might be able to turn out 50%. This would literally be tyranny of the majority, with the major parties cooperating to deny representation to smaller minorities.

What would justify a recall? I believe that to revoke a mandate, people who originally voted for the elected official must turn against him or her en masse. It should not be sufficient for angry voters who have always opposed the politician to get even angrier. If they can’t persuade people who originally voted for the politician to change sides, the original election result should stand.

This is the problem I had with the recall election effort against Alex Tsai. Sure, Tsai says inflammatory things and he is probably corrupt, but he was inflammatory and (probably) corrupt back in 2012 when his district gave him 33,000 more votes than the runner-up. He is still fundamentally the same person; we haven’t suddenly learned something new and unexpected about him. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that his former voters suddenly started clamoring to get rid of him. As far as I can tell, what happened is that he offended people who have always opposed him and made them dislike him even more intensely.

Imagine a legislator who owned a company that was selling tainted cooking oil or another who was caught up in a spectacular and lurid corruption case (such as fishing bags of cash out of hiding places in a fish pond). With such sudden new and damning information, many former supporters might turn against those two legislators, regardless of their party preferences. In such cases, recalls might be warranted. Short of that sort of smoking gun, it is best to simply wait until the next general election.


Postscript: While the recall against Alex Tsai officially failed, I think it might have partially succeeded. The effort got 24% turnout, which is an astonishing number. I had expected them to get about half of that. Consider that in last week’s by-election in Taichung City, with both major parties mobilizing as intensely as they could, turnout was only 30%. In this recall, one side completely sat out, and the politicians from the other side were noticeably absent. This effort was orchestrated by a ragtag, underfunded group of political amateurs. Yet roughly as many people voted against Tsai yesterday as voted for the DPP legislative candidate in 2012 when there was a presidential race driving voters to the polls. There is almost no way to spin this as a triumph for Tsai. (Admittedly, he went before the TV cameras and tried to do exactly that. He’s pretty brazen.) Other KMT figures might collectively decide that it isn’t worth the risk to let Tsai run for re-election. His district has always been considered safe for the blue camp, but the Sean Lien experience should be fresh in everyone’s minds. The KMT can’t afford to risk losing another race with a controversial candidate. It has plenty of boring and safe candidates who are locks to win. (Tsai has said that he won’t run again, but (a) that was when he was running for mayor and (b) he’s been known to change his mind.) The Appendectomy Project might not have cut him out of the legislature this week, but it might have demonstrated that Tsai is unpopular enough that the KMT will finish the job for them in a few months.

DPP declares war

January 15, 2013

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.