The successful recall of Taoyuan city councilor Wang Hao-yu (王浩宇) was the first-ever recall of a municipality councilor. The rejection of the high-profile politician was partly the result of his own shortcomings, but was also due to factors in the wider political environment.
Everyone is waiting to see the political repercussions of next month’s recall vote against Kaohsiung City Councilor Huang Jie (黃捷), and whether more so-called “retribution recalls” are to follow. The trend might spill over to next year’s mayoral and county commissioner elections.
Much of the blame for the unprecedented success of the vote to recall Wang must be laid at his own feet. Not only did his comments and actions get him embroiled in controversies, they also garnered much of his fame online, contributing to his unofficial title as “national city councilor at large.”
During the process, he picked fights far and wide, becoming something of an attack dog. He riled other political parties — major and minor — and was even accused of offending the Sediq community with his comments.
He left the Green Party in favor of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and his work as city councilor was brought into question, with disciplinary meetings convened on several occasions. Eyebrows have been raised about the bad optics resulting from members of his family illegally owning houses on land zoned as farmland — and how this damages his party’s image.
Wang’s fall should serve as a lesson to all politicians and parties seeking to bolster their online popularity at the expense of their responsibilities. In the long term, despite the populist element that is necessarily part of politics, it is politicians’ perception among the populace in general and their constituency in particular that is important.
Politicians should be careful not to put the cart before the horse, much less cut off their nose to spite their face.
The political composition of Wang’s constituency was crucial.
He was a young councilor and a high-profile member of the pan-green camp, who was targeted by the pan-blue camp in Jhongli (中壢), a blue-leaning district.
He was a suitable victim for a retribution recall fed by anger over the recall of former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and discontent over the importation of US pork. The confluence of these elements ensured Wang’s recall.
The multi-member district system for city councilors contributed to the high number of votes. Even though the threshold of votes needed for the recall was quite high, the tally of recall votes was five times greater than when he landed the job. With a turnout of 28.1 percent, there were simply more votes in favor of the recall than against.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) successfully mobilized the constituency by fanning the flames of discontent over the importation of US pork. The party exploited the recall campaign to add kindling to its August referendum to block the easing of restrictions on the importation of US pork.
The political parties that Wang had offended on countless occasions over the years were joined by the civic groups that support them, swelling the ranks of those wishing to see him fall. Beset on all flanks, Wang was unable to stem the tide of voters who had been stirred up to oust him — his online popularity mattered little at that point.
The recall was the logical outcome of amendments made to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) more than four years ago. The threshold for passage of a recall was lowered, only requiring that the votes in favor should exceed both the number of votes against and one-quarter of the constituents eligible to vote when the politician was elected to office. The amendments also extended the period for collecting signatures and lifted prohibitions on campaigning.
In the past year alone, a dozen or so recall motions against municipality mayors, councilors, and village and township heads have been proposed or voted on. Although aggravated by grievances from past elections or conflicts of interest at the local level, they are essentially the result of the loosening of restrictions.
One could speculate that recall motions will proliferate in the months and years to come. Related to this is that in the multi-member district system, it is possible for a politician pushing a specific issue or representing certain interests to be elected, which is of benefit to smaller parties, but also allows one-issue candidates or fringe politicians to make their way into an elected seat. This can only give political pluralism a bad name.
With his recall, Wang really only has himself to blame, but it also should serve as a warning for small parties that if they pursue only certain issues, they are vulnerable to getting themselves in a tight spot or even to facing a recall motion.
The KMT will surely feel encouraged by the successful recall of Wang in the wake of the controversy over the importation of US pork. Not only have its ranks started calling for Han to stand for Taoyuan mayor and for a committee to be formed to recall more political rivals over the pork imports issue, it has also sought to exploit this opportunity to tie it with the August referendum, to elicit support for the party in major elections.
In the pan-green camp, the DPP, which holds the legislature and the presidency, is looking concerned, and is evaluating whether it had any missteps, and if so, how to put those right. The most obvious place to start is the issue of the importation of US pork.
This matter is a non-issue that has been manipulated for political gain. The lifting of restrictions on the importation of US pork containing traces of ractopamine, just like the lifting of restrictions on the importation of US beef from cattle under 30 months old by the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), were necessary for trade deregulation between Taiwan and the US, and for helping Taiwan achieve economic autonomy.
Statistics show that ractopamine is used in only 20 percent of US pork, compared with 75 percent of US beef, while Taiwanese consume on average 3kg of US beef annually, compared with 0.49kg of US pork.
Based on Taiwan’s approved standards for trace elements of ractopamine, adults would need to consume 6kg of pork per day before they ingested more than the approved amount, and even this amount would not be considered toxic.
To clear the matter up, the government should communicate this information to Taiwanese. Once this has been done, it should allow the public to make its own choice about whether it eats US pork products or not.
The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was right five months ago to announce the lifting of restrictions on the importation of US pork, but it has allowed the opposition to manipulate the situation to its advantage in the intervening time, and failed to get its own point of view across to the public.
The government should not become concerned that the Wang recall will have a domino effect, setting off other recalls. Future recalls will have their own set of circumstances, depending on the politician targeted and the politician’s constituency. It should not read too much into Wang’s defeat.
The same is not true for public health issues, such as that concerning US pork. The government needs to ask itself whether it has risen to the expectations of Taiwanese.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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