On January 16, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) Taoyuan City Councilor Wang Hao-yu (王浩宇) became the first councilor in a special municipality to be recalled—a development that could open the door for several recall attempts against elected officials nationwide. A total of 84,582 votes (92.23 percent) were in favor of recalling Wang, compared to 7,128 (7.7 percent) who were against. Turnout for the recall, which took place in the district of Zhongli (中壢), was 28 percent. Members of both the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨), headed by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), mobilized for the recall against Wang. The KMT described the outcome of the recall as “encouraging” for citizens in other parts of the country who wish to initiate recalls, adding that Wang’s removal “showed the strong determination of the people in Zhongli to eliminate legislators who are clearly incompetent.”
Wang’s recall occurred less than a month before another attempt, this time against Independent Kaohsiung City Councilor Huang Jie (黃捷), which is planned for February 6. Like Wang, Huang—who was formerly of the New Power Party (NPP, 時代力量)—was a vocal critic of Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the defeated KMT presidential candidate and former mayor of Kaohsiung who was recalled from office in June of 2020. Since Wang’s defeat, word has spread that Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP, 台灣基進) Legislator Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) could also be targeted for recall.
The recall against Wang was initiated by Tang Ping-jung (唐平榮), executive officer of the Taichung-based Hope Media Foundation (財團法人公益傳播基金會). Founded in November 2016, Hope Media is sponsored by Globe Union, whose chairman is Ouyang Ming (歐陽明). Tang was introduced to Ouyang by the KMT’s Apollo Chen (陳學聖). According to the Globe Union website, besides sponsoring Hope Media, the organization has also collaborated with the Straits Economic & Cultural Interchange Association (海峽兩岸經貿文化交流協會)—an outfit that promotes economic ties across the Taiwan Strait—as well as the Taichung Processing Region Friendship Association.
In an interview with the Chinese-language Apple Daily in June 2020, Tang, who worked in China before returning to Taiwan due to his father’s illness, said that he had been compelled to initiate the recall against Wang because of the latter’s “extreme language” and “rumor mongering,” which contributed to an environment he did not want his children to grow up into.
It is difficult to argue against the fact that Wang had a reputation for holding strong opinions and not hesitating to make them public.  However, if Tang’s main justification for initiating the recall was such “unseemly” behavior, then the same case could be made for the recall of dozens of other legislators, including many in the pan-blue camp. In Ms. Huang’s case in Kaohsiung, the argument falls on its own sword, as the young councilor is not known for using strong language. In fact, the reasons used for the recall motion against her are “poor morals” (presumably due to her support for same-sex marriage, which was legalized in 2019), “violations” of Hong Kong’s national security law due to her support for Hong Kong protesters last year, and challenges to former Mayor Han (including her famous eye-roll during a question and answer session at the city council), among others. In both cases, the likeliest rationale for the recall attempts is retribution for Han’s recall. Tellingly, Tang first began raising the prospect of a recall attempt against Wang the same month that Han was removed from office.
In recent years, ultraconservative groups, among them Evangelical Christian churches, have repeatedly threatened to launch recall attempts against elected officials who supported the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, a tactic which appears to have been inspired by similar anti-LGBTQ movements in the United States, such as MassResistance. One such attempt, initiated by the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance (安定力量)—whose principal aim was to block the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan—was made against Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) of the NPP in 2017. Ironically, Mr. Huang’s near recall was made possible due to revisions, passed in 2016, to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) which his party had initiated, resulting in the lowering of hitherto nearly unsurmountable thresholds for such efforts. The high thresholds, for example, had resulted in a failed attempt (known as the “Appendectomy Project”) to unseat then-KMT Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) in 2015. After the revisions came into force, Evangelical anti-LGBTQ organizations threatened to launch similar efforts against the DPP’s Wang Ting-yu (王定宇) in Tainan and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who was a legislator in Hualien at the time and one of the prime targets of Evangelicals’ ire.
Following years of advocacy for the lowering of thresholds for referenda and other instruments of “direct democracy,” amendments to the Act have proved to have countervailing effects. On the one hand, it has made it possible for citizens to be more directly involved in policy making while empowering them to take action whenever elected officials were derelict in their duties. However, a darker side to this is the fact that these instruments of direct democracy—referenda, recalls—risk becoming tools for exploitation by forces that are attempting to exacerbate the political fault lines. So far, most recall efforts have been initiated based on what are arguably frivolous grounds, over reasons that, while possibly pointing to character flaws in the targeted officials, nevertheless fall short of qualifying for extreme measures such as their removal from office. Tellingly, the recall attempts against Wang Hao-yu, Huang Jie and Chen Po-wei all occur in ridings where the results of the elections that brought those individuals to office were very close, which suggests that the recall attempts may simply constitute an attempt overturn the results of a democratic election. Frivolous recalls can therefore succeed if the opposition successfully mobilized voters who supported the defeated candidate while counting on the likelihood that those who supported the elected official will not be so easily mobilized. Recalls should only be initiated when an elected official has clearly demonstrated that he or she is incapable or has been charged with a serious crime such as treason or corruption. The successful removal of Mr. Wang will likely open the door to several other attempts. Moreover, recalls contribute to further polarization and invite tit-for-tat moves by both ends of the political spectrum (whether used by the blue or green camp, such practices are detrimental to democracy and should not be countenanced). During such periods of partisan rancor, media and society become particularly exposed to disinformation produced both domestically and externally (i.e., by the Chinese Communist Party and/or its proxies, with the aim of fueling extreme views in Taiwan). Referenda on same-sex marriage and food safety (November 2018) provided similar opportunities for the full expression of extremist views and disinformation, contributing to polarization and a weakening of democratic institutions.
Democracy is predicated on voters making informed decisions based on facts; once disinformation, extreme ideology, and a spirit of retribution replace the facts, democracy risks descending into populism. The Central Election Commission (CEC, 中央選舉委員會) therefore has a greater role to play in determining whether a recall attempt, or a referendum, is based on credible foundations or is simply frivolous. In other words, the CEC should act like a court of law, with a “judge” or independent committee of experts deciding whether an application should be accepted or not. Otherwise—as it is in its present configuration—recalls and referenda are recipes for political and social instability.
Especially when it comes to elected officials, recalls should be permitted only in the most extreme of circumstances, when it can be clearly determined that the potential target for recall is unsuited for the position. Under no circumstances should recalls be initiated over fatuous claims such as “bad language” or “poor morals,” which arguably is the case for Mr. Wang, Ms. Huang, and Mr. Chen. The same should apply to recall attempts against elected officials over issues (e.g., legalization of same-sex marriage) which had been parts of their platforms when they ran for office. Their election to office constituted, in itself, agreement by a majority of voters in the candidate’s jurisdiction that the policies espoused by said candidate were supported by society. Only policy volte-faces (e.g., a 180-degree turn on policies proposed by a candidate) should be used as arguments to initiate a recall effort.
Lastly, under no circumstances should recalls be launched as a means of retribution—as appears to be the issue in the Wang and Huang cases—for an earlier recall (in this case, Han Kuo-yu’s). An endless cycle of recalls would pose a threat to Taiwan’s electoral democracy, which depends on free, fair, and regular cycles of elections. The weaponization of recalls by extreme groups or cynical politicians would trivialize democracy and expose any elected official to removal from office based on lies, the mood of the day, and populist forces using various tools of high mobilization to overturn the results of a previous election. With very rare exceptions, popular discontent with elected officials should be expressed through voting decisions made in regularly held elections. If an official did not meet public expectations, he or she should be removed in the next election.
The main point: Lowered thresholds for the recall of elected officials have opened the door for the exploitation of “direct democracy” that could end up undermining Taiwan’s democratic foundations. Only under extreme circumstances should elected officials be removed from office by means of referenda before their term ends.
 Wang, for example, attracted the ire of KMT supporters after he was deemed to have made light of the death of Kaohsiung City Council speaker Hsu Kun-yuan (許崑源), who jumped to his death in June last year following Han’s recall.