On June 6, residents of Kaohsiung recalled Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜, b. 1962), the former firebrand of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), in a much-awaited plebiscite. This extraordinary development—a first in the nation’s democratic history—was almost Shakespearean in its tragic arc: from Han’s rise in the November 2018 local elections, to his seemingly unstoppable bid for the presidency, to his final crash and burn. Analyzing the drama following the recall vote, a number of international outlets posited that the outcome constituted yet another example of the strong opposition by the Taiwanese public to unification with China. While Han’s ostensibly close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) indeed factored into voters’ decision in the recall attempt, their motives were not one-dimensional: several factors, most of them domestic, created the perfect storm for Han’s removal from office.
Han was recalled with 939,090 votes (97.4 percent) in favor and 25,051 (2.6 percent) against. Despite the extreme heat and torrential rain on voting day, turnout was a very respectable 42.14 percent. Approximately 1.3 million eligible voters did not cast a ballot in the recall, although by no means did all of them oppose the recall. This result stands in stark contrast with the November 2018 mayoral elections, when Han garnered 892,545 votes (53.86 percent) against his rival from the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chen Chi-mai, (陳其邁) who received 742,239 votes (44.79 percent) in the four-way race. Turnout in those elections was 73.54 percent.
Motivated voters, many of them young people still registered as residents of Kaohsiung, traveled from every corner of the island nation down to the southern port city to cast their votes in the recall. The successful recall and high turnout occurred despite rumors in the weeks preceding the vote that local officials were attempting to sow confusion, intimidate voters, and interfere with voting. Han and senior officials in his administration had also called on residents to stay home on election day.
Han’s dismissal was the nation’s first recall attempt against a sitting mayor. Thresholds for recalls were lowered in 2016 following amendments to the Public Officials Election and Recall Act (公職人員選罷法). Under the new rules, the recall of a municipal chief requires a turnout of at least 25 percent of eligible voters—or 574,996, in Kaohsiung’s case—and a majority in favor of the removal.
Hyping the China Factor
A number of international outlets analyzed the recall purely from the angle of cross-Strait relations. The New York Times, for example, wrote that Han’s removal “reflects a stunning reversal and a hardening of Taiwan’s attitude toward China.” For its part, The Wall Street Journal headlined its article “Taiwan Voters Throw China-Friendly Mayor Out of Office.” Such language reflected a tendency among foreign media to look at every voter decision and action through the lens of Taiwan’s contentious relationship with China.
Not to be bested, the CCP mouthpiece Global Times ran an article titled “Mainland Unfazed by ‘Mayor’ Recall” in its print edition, in which it alleged that the DPP had used the recall to fuel “separatist” sentiment against China. “Many Taiwan residents who supported Han questioned the legitimacy of the recall online since they believe the ruling party DPP is inciting the anti-mainland [sic] and separatist [sic] sentiment to clean its political rivals and regain power from the city,” it wrote.
In reality, the China factor was just one among many of the reasons why the recall was initiated and successfully passed. Undoubtedly, more Taiwan-centric voters became wary of Han’s intentions soon after his November 2018 election, when he embarked on a trip across the Taiwan Strait, which took him to Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Xiamen. During that visit, Han held closed-door meetings with CCP officials, including head of the Liaison Office Wang Zhimin (王志民), China’s top official in Hong Kong, as well as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥). According to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office, the agency in charge of cross-Strait affairs, Han’s delegation refused to make its itinerary known to the Taiwanese government, adding that the five-day visit was “orchestrated” by the Chinese side.
Han was widely believed to be Beijing’s favorite during the 2020 presidential campaign. Among the reasons for this perception were his embrace of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” his rhetoric favoring closer ties with China, his selection of a running mate from a secret society (Hongmen, 洪門) with close ties across the Taiwan Strait, and his sustained online support campaign, part of which is suspected of having been financed by Beijing or Taiwan-based proxies.
Apprehensions over Han’s possible pro-unification tendencies, however, are insufficient to explain the mobilization for his recall. After all, similar action has not been taken to target other politicians in Taiwan whose views are similar to those which Han ostensibly espouses. Rather, Han’s many domestic failings contribute to his demise. Chief among those was his decision to seek his party’s nomination for the January 2020 presidential elections a mere three months after entering office in Kaohsiung. Many residents of Kaohsiung, seeking a change in direction for what they regarded as an economically stagnating city after nearly two decades of DPP rule, had embraced Han’s vow to revitalize the metropolis and “make everybody rich,” a slogan that many pro-KMT media outlets and commentators had seized upon. For many of those, Han’s run for the presidency looked like abandonment, betrayal, and opportunism. While in office, Han’s ruling style was also highly erratic: his administration’s mockery of interpellation sessions at city council; threats by his supporters against his detractors and their families; rumored alcoholism; pathological lateness; self-contradictory rhetoric; rampant use of disinformation; odd policy proposals (e.g., a “love ferris wheel” project); and the cancelation of a highly popular summer concert at Kaohsiung Harbor, which Han reportedly described as “low class” all conspired to turn many residents of the city against the mayor. A social conservative, Han had also angered Southeast Asian workers in Taiwan with alleged racist remarks and showed disrespect to a delegation of visiting Japanese academics. Furthermore, several foreign officials who have had encounters with Mayor Han have confirmed privately with this author the “highly unusual” nature of the politician.
Unlike what the Global Times and Han himself have claimed, the recall attempt was organized by Taiwanese civil society, including groups such as Citizens Mowing Action (公民割草行動) and WeCare Kaohsiung, although some politicians from the DPP, the New Power Party, and the Taiwan Statebuilding Party did show support. Tellingly, three of the four initiators of the movement to unseat Han came from “blue” (i.e., pro-KMT) families. Within the KMT itself, Han’s idiosyncratic style, seen as anti-elite and populist, had also alienated an important segment of the KMT, resulting in a rift which led many party pillars to abandon him in the lead-up to the January 2020 elections. Incidents during his campaign which resulted in insults to KMT elders, including former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) also contributed to an erosion of his appeal among traditionalist blue camp politicians, many of whom regarded him as an outlier, upstart, and amateur who could not be controlled by the party central.
Thus, while Han’s China policy may have been problematic to some residents, it was the sense of betrayal and fears of anti-democratic proclivities which—in the aggregate—likely led nearly 1 million people to vote in favor of his recall on June 6. To be sure, the public was not obsessed with his supposedly pro-Beijing policies, nor did the recall constitute, as the New York Times alleged, “a hardening of Taiwan’s attitude toward China.” Instead, much more pragmatic issues pertaining to governance and accountability compelled what the political theorist John Keane describes as “monitory democracy” to spring into action. Nevertheless, the outcome did cost Beijing a potential partner.
Mayor Han’s recall did not constitute a “victory,” as many have termed it. Instead, it was an extraordinary corrective action utilizing democratic instruments which should only be utilized in the rarest of instances. That it came to this indicates that the democratic election process had failed, as an official elected by the public had failed to meet the minimal requirements for holding office. For the KMT, the recall will compel party leaders to re-examine the wisdom of allowing outliers within the party to seek the highest office in Taiwan. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that its viability as a political party is contingent on its ability to propose candidates who agree to play by the rules.
The main point: The June 6 recall of the former firebrand Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu was the result of a sense of betrayal and apprehensions over a pattern of behavior which raised questions about his ability to govern under democratic conditions. While his removal ostensibly removes a potential partner for Beijing, China was only one of many factors contributing to his extraordinary demise.