A recall vote in Taipei and by-election in Taichung resulted in a double victory for the pan-Green camp on Saturday, with independent legislator Freddy Lim defending his seat in Taipei and Lin Ching-yi of the DPP winning over Yen Kuan-heng of the KMT.
Lim is one of Taiwan’s most internationally known politicians. One of the cohort of young activists that ran for office after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, Lim is also the frontman of the death metal band Chthonic. Lim also served as president of Amnesty International Taiwan from 2010 to 2014.
Lim was facing a recall vote organized by Chung Hsiao-ping, a pan-Blue city councilor. In particular, Lim came under scrutiny after Taiwan’s first major COVID-19 outbreak began in his home district of Wanhua, one of the poorest areas of Taipei. Lim was accused of not being particularly present in Wanhua or focused on defending his constituents.
To this extent, the KMT and pan-Blue camp sought to attack Lim over the issue of U.S. pork imports. In 2020, the ruling Tsai administration lifted long-standing barriers on U.S. pork imports. This is historically a contested issue in Taiwan, given concerns about the use of the growth hormone ractopamine in American pork. The KMT leveraged the issue of U.S. pork imports during last month’s national referendum as well.
The KMT itself proposed lifting these import barriers under the Ma administration. But when the Tsai administration decided to do so in the hopes of strengthening economic ties between the United States and Taiwan, the KMT used this to criticize Tsai. Even though the referendum last month resulted in a defeat for the KMT, with all four of its referendum proposals voted down by the public and the referendum not reaching benchmarks to be binding, the KMT still sought to attack Lim through association with the Tsai administration’s stances. Lim was, in fact, not strongly associated with the U.S. pork issue.
This was not the first time that the KMT sought to attack a young pan-Green politician by drawing links with U.S. pork imports, even when the targeted politician didn’t have a particularly strong stance on the issue. The KMT used a similar strategy in the recall campaign against Kaohsiung independent city councilor Huang Jie.
In particular, the KMT has sought to frame recall votes it has initiated as referendums on the Tsai administration as a whole. Similarly, the referendum last month was framed by the KMT as primarily a referendum on the Tsai administration’s governance, rather than specifically about the four national issues voted on.
The recall vote against Lim was another in a series of “revenge recalls” initiated by the KMT against young, progressive politicians that are outspoken in their criticisms of the pan-Blue camp. As also occurred with the two other politicians that have survived “revenge recalls” to date, Huang Jie and then-New Taipei legislator Huang Kuo-chang, the vote did not meet benchmarks to be binding. For the recall to succeed, 58,756, or 25 percent of eligible voters, would have had to support recalling Lim. However, Lim squeezed by with only 54,813 votes in favor of the recall, against 43,340 votes against the recall.
With 4,000 more votes, the KMT would have managed to recall Lim. The results of the recall may affect Lim’s future political prospects, with Lim having suggested in the past that he was eyeing a run for Taipei mayor. In the years since 2016, young, post-Sunflower politicians such as Lim have mostly run in areas that historically lean Blue with the endorsement of the DPP, but it has not always been easy to retain these areas.
Taiwan’s recall system arguably makes it easier to recall politicians than to vote them in. The results may still be sobering for the DPP, in that the KMT commands enough influence to force recall votes against the young progressive politicians that may be the future of the pan-Green camp.
Indeed, the DPP leaned heavily into campaigning for Lim, even though he is an independent legislator rather than a party member. President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai making appearances at Lim’s election rally the night before the vote. The party’s young politicians made frequent campaign appearances with Lim in the weeks before the vote and the area was saturated with campaign ads by the DPP.
By contrast, the KMT’s campaigning in the area was less visible, with some prominent local KMT politicians such as former legislator Lin Yu-fang – who held the seat for eight years before Lim ousted him in 2016 – failing to be involved in the recall campaign in any real capacity. This may reflect fractures in the party.
For the by-election in Taichung, Lin Ching-yi was running as the DPP’s candidate to fill the seat formerly occupied by Chen Po-wei of the pan-Green Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP). Lin previously served as a party list legislator from 2016 to 2020, one of the legislators elected through proportional voting for political parties. Lin won with 88,752 votes compared to her opponent, Yen Kuan-heng, who had 80,912 votes. While turnout for the Lim recall was low, turnout in Taichung was high.
The by-election became necessary after Chen was recalled in October, with the recall campaign primarily driven by Yen, the scion of the Yen political dynasty that has long held court over Taichung politics. Yen served as legislator from 2013 to 2020, assuming the seat held by his father Yen Ching-piao, after the elder Yen was arrested on corruption charges.
Apart from serving as a legislator from 2002 to 2012, Yen Ching-piao also heads the Dajia Jenn Lann Temple where the Dajia Mazu pilgrimage, Taiwan’s largest religious event, begins. Yen has faced charges over not only corruption, but attempted murder and weapons possession, and is viewed as having gangster ties.
Chen ousting Yen Kuan-heng in 2020, then, was seen as an upset potentially signaling that the Yen family’s influence in Taichung had been broken. The recall vote against Chen in October showed that this was not necessarily the case.
Yet with Lin Ching-yi succeeding Chen shortly after, the KMT has not gained any seat as a result of Chen’s recall. Some analysts view the KMT’s decision to initiate a recall campaign against Chen as the reason why Yen lost. After all, the KMT could have just waited for Chen to come up for reelection to try and regain control over Taichung.
It was an initiative of previous KMT chair Johnny Chiang to start a recall campaign against Chen, and its success was viewed as a win for the KMT at the time. But the KMT’s recall of Chen provoked a sense of crisis in the pan-Green camp and resulted in increased scrutiny of Yen. In particular, media honed in on the Yen family’s past history of implication in corruption charges and illegal construction on a mansion owned by Yen, which became widely reported on. This scandal is unresolved after the by-election and could perhaps create issues for Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen, who is also a member of the KMT, but whose administration is obliged to investigate the allegations against Yen.
For his part, Yen has turned away police on previous attempts by law enforcement to inspect his property. Yen further came under scrutiny with allegations of vote buying through lavish buffets provided to voters, seen as a form of bribe. In the past, Taiwanese media was not as willing to report on allegations of lawbreaking by the Yen family. The latest coverage seems to represent a shift.
On the heels of a stinging defeat in the December referendum and a double loss for the KMT in both Taipei and Taichung for the recall and by-election, KMT chair Eric Chu has faced calls to resign as a means of taking responsibility. Though Chu – who was just elected KMT chair in September 2021 – has not announced any resignation, the consecutive losses will damage Chu’s standing in the party, and weaken his position going into local elections later this year. Chu was unusually absent from campaign rallies, perhaps realizing that the KMT would not be victorious and wanting to avoid being associated with the losses. Chu did not even make any direct statement to the press after the loss, sending a representative instead.
Chu is likely to face criticism from deep Blue hardliners in the party. This includes media personality Jaw Shaw-kang, Sun Yat-Sen School head Chang Ya-chung, and former presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Han is seen as particularly likely to challenge Chu. After having kept mostly out of politics since he was recalled as Kaohsiung mayor in June 2020, Han recently staged a political comeback with a book release, which appears to be aimed at rebranding his political persona. Jaw and Chang have both been outspoken in criticisms of Chu. If Chu is eventually ousted by one of the three, this is likely to further hurt the party’s prospects. The KMT already struggles to win public support because of its inability to turn around its pro-China image, and electing a hardline chair would feed those perceptions among Taiwan’s moderates.