Archive for the ‘recalls’ Category

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.