TAIPEI—Freddy Lim, the frontman for a Taiwanese heavy-metal band, turned heads when he won his first term as a lawmaker in 2016, signaling to some youth in the island democracy that a new political era was dawning. Now, the 45-year-old is facing a recall.
He has a lot of company: Mr. Lim is the fifth elected politician in Taiwan to face a recall challenge in the past year. If he were to be voted out on Sunday, he would become yet another victim of what some Taiwanese describe as an emerging trend of “revenge recalls.”
Combined with a fondness for popular referendums that critics blame for wasting political resources, the string of recalls is fueling a debate about whether Taiwan—widely seen as a bulwark of democracy against China—is too democratic for its own good.
Spurred by a change in the law, one of the earlier recalls successfully ousted a China-friendly politician as mayor of the southern port city of Kaohsiung in June 2020. But many of the recent targets have been younger politicians known for their antagonistic stands toward China.
“These past few years with Taiwan undergoing so much reform and change, the new generation of politicians are the easiest targets,” Mr. Lim said.
Taiwan has long been known for its exuberant brand of politics, in which lawmakers sometimes cast aside rhetoric to batter each other with fists, or—in the case of a debate over allowing U.S. pork imports—bags of rotting animal intestines. More recently, however, the constant state of political mobilization has created a damaging situation in which “elections never end,” said Lin Jia-he, an associate law professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
The island’s ruling Democratic People’s Party and the opposition Nationalist Party, also known as Kuomintang or KMT, spent months campaigning ahead of a vote in December on issues including a potential ban on imports of American pork, the relocation of a liquefied natural gas terminal and restarting of a suspended nuclear power plant. The poll ended up attracting ballots from barely more than 40% of eligible voters.
“There are more pressing challenges that Taiwanese politicians should hopefully be spending their time on,” including Chinese infiltration and Taiwan preparedness for a potential Chinese invasion, said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies.
The string of recalls in Taiwan has led some political scientists to draw parallels with California, where an effort to remove incumbent Democratic
Gov. Gavin Newsom
last year likewise prompted discussion about whether there is such a thing as too much direct democracy.
While Mr. Newsom won the statewide vote eventually, some in Taiwan haven’t been so lucky.
In October, former legislator Chen Po-wei, a vocal supporter of Taiwanese independence who had scored an upset victory in the 2020 legislative election with more than 112,000 ballots, lost in a closely watched recall vote in which some 78,000 people voted for him to go. “We neither broke the law nor betrayed the country,” Mr. Chen said in an interview.
Political analysts say there is no evidence that Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a part of China and has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary, is directly manipulating the recall process. China nevertheless stands to benefit if the gears of Taiwanese politics get gummed up, especially with recalls of pro-independence lawmakers, analysts said.
KMT Chairman Eric Chu highlighted that dynamic in October when he criticized Mr. Lim for protesting Mr. Chen’s recall.
“Don’t fight against China every time you speak,” Mr. Chu said, before going on to forecast Mr. Lim’s own recall vote. “These kinds of legislators and elected officials will definitely be ousted.”
Nationalist Party spokesman Alfred Lin dismissed the idea that China played a role in the recalls, saying that instead they “embody the deepening democratic consciousness of the Taiwanese people.” Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
China has been a frequent critic of democracy in Taiwan. In December, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, slammed Taiwan’s ruling party for seeking independence under the guise of democracy: “Suppressing dissidents on the island, manipulating ethnic antagonism and dividing Taiwanese society—what kind of democracy is that?”
The importance of direct democracy in Taiwanese politics traces back to Sun Yat-sen, China’s first republican president, who in a 1924 speech praised recalls and referendums—institutions that were rare in Western nations at the time—as “solutions to transforming China into the world’s most advanced country.”
Mr. Sun’s Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s after his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, lost to
Communist Party in China’s civil war and brought with it the Republic of China’s constitution, which was largely based on Mr. Sun’s vision.
Recalls took on a new importance in Taiwan following a 2014 student-led protest called the Sunflower Movement that successfully shut down an unpopular trade pact with China. After failing in their attempts to oust several KMT lawmakers, supporters of the movement pushed to lower the threshold for recalls.
The effort succeeded two years later, after President Tsai Ing-wen won her first election and her independence-leaning DPP picked up legislative majorities. Lawmakers approved an amendment that cut the number of signatures required to proceed with a recall vote to 10% of voters from 13%. They also halved the threshold for assenting votes in a legitimate vote to 25% of registered voters in the district from 50%.
Han Kuo-yu, the China-friendly mayor ousted in 2020, was the highest-ranking elected official to be recalled after the law was changed. Mr. Han’s supporters responded by supporting an effort to recall Huang Jie, a 28-year-old city councilor who was known to spar with Mr. Han during meetings.
“They wanted to do the same to attack people whom they see as political enemies,” Ms. Huang, who survived her recall election in February, said of Mr. Han’s supporters. “It is basically a mobilization of hatred,” Ms. Huang said.
In an ironic twist, both Ms. Huang and Mr. Lim were among those who pushed to make recalls easier.
“It has a boomerang effect. You don’t get to choose how it’s going to be used,” said Joshua Spivak, author of the book “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.”
Mr. Lim declined to comment about the wisdom of Taiwan’s recall rules but said he isn’t surprised by the effort to recall him, pointing to criticisms of his long hair and tattoos when he first ran for office.
“Ever since I started in politics, there have been all-out attacks on me as a rock band’s lead singer,” said the now short-haired Mr. Lim, who has frequently mixed politics with music as a performer. Mr. Lim is the lead singer for the heavy-metal band Chthonic.
During a 2012 concert in London, Mr. Lim took aim at International Olympic Committee rules, instituted at Beijing’s insistence, that required Taiwanese athletes to compete at the Olympics under the made-up flag of “Chinese Taipei.” The singer’s onstage rant—-during which he repeated the phrase “Chinese f—ing Taipei” multiple times-—was recently featured on comedian John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight” in a segment on Taiwan.
Chung Siao-ping, the KMT city councilor leading the campaign to recall Mr. Lim, cited the vulgarity as one of the reasons the metalhead lawmaker needs to go.
“Although it was before he became a legislator, you can’t ‘f—’ Taipei just because you support Taiwan independence,” said Mr. Chung, who also criticized Mr. Lim for not paying enough attention to his district, the center of a local Covid-19 outbreak in May.
Mr. Lim said he hoped the string of recalls would end with him. Analysts warned, however, that the trend was likely to continue without changes to the recall rules.
“It’s unlikely someone could stop the recalls,” National Chengchi University’s Mr. Lin said. “In Taiwan, opposing recalls means you’re against democracy.”
Write to Joyu Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org
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