Han Kuo-yu, who lost Taiwan presidential race in January, now facing a recall as mayor

Lawrence Chung

Voters in Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung lined up on Saturday morning to cast ballots on a recall motion of mayor Han Kuo-yu, a vote that will have ripple effects on the island’s future elections.

Han, a 62-year-old former legislator from New Taipei, drew harsh criticism from the public over his failed bid for president in January as the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate against the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – less than six months after he won a surprising victory as Kaohsiung mayor.

Analysts said the outcome of the recall, the first to target the head of a municipality in Taiwan, would decide whether the ruling independence-leaning DPP is able to further bolster its political control on the island.

Should the recall pass, the opposition KMT would also face new problems. Not only would it affect its chances in local government elections later this year and in the 2024 presidential campaign, but it would also trigger a new round of infighting within the mainland-friendly party, analysts said.

An estimated 2.3 million residents are eligible to cast ballots, and “at least a quarter – or 575,000 – voters must vote in favour of the recall motion before the vote is considered valid,” a spokesman for the city’s election commission said.

Many Kaohsiung citizens were upset when Han announced his presidential bid in July – and took months off from the city government from October to January to campaign.

“He has betrayed the citizens [of Kaohsiung] by failing his campaign promise that he would stay put in the city if elected mayor,” said Aaron Yin, founder of WeCare, a pro-independence civil group which initiated the recall campaign.

Yin also accused Han of failing to live up with his commitment to develop the city and bring prosperity to the Kaohsiung public.

Han was a highly popular politician in late 2018 when he won by a landslide in Kaohsiung — which had been known as a pro-independence stronghold in Taiwan — and led other KMT candidates to win big in 14 of the 22 cities and counties on the island.

But that popularity was short-lived.

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“The success story of Han had already become a bygone right after he declared his presidential bid,” said Arthur Wang Zhin-sheng, secretary general of Asia-Pacific Elite Interchange Association, a Taipei-based political and international relations research organisation.

Wang said it was difficult for any recall motion in Taiwan to succeed, given the high thresholds to meet and the general public’s lack of interest in this kind of referendum.

But Han could be the first politician in Taiwan to be ousted as “many Kaohsiung citizens, especially young people, want him to go”, he said, adding that the ouster would mean a big problem for the KMT.

“It would impact the KMT’s gambits in the 2020 local government elections and further upset its chances in the 2024 presidential poll if it suffers a serious setback in the 2020 local races.”

Wang said that Han’s ouster would also threaten the KMT chairman, Johnny Chiang, a younger-generation KMT leader who was elected head in a bid to reform the party.

“The old guards would use the ouster to accuse Chiang for failing to help secure Han and might want to challenge him in the KMT chairman election next year,” Wang said, adding that Han might want to run for the KMT leadership if he was ousted.

On the other hand, the DPP was expected to expand its political control of the island if it was able to retake Kaohsiung, Wang said.

On Wednesday, Tsai, who doubles as the DPP’s chairman, instructed party officials to mobilise as many voters as possible to make sure that the recall motion succeeds.

Meanwhile, Han said he would take it easy and leave it to the “democratic system to decide” whether he should go or not. On Friday, Chiang said he would lead other party officials to stump on behalf of Han on Saturday.

If the mayor is ousted, the cabinet will appoint an official to fill Han’s post temporarily before a by-election that will be held within three months.

If ousted, Han will be barred from running for mayor for four years, but he could choose to initiate a legal challenge against the recall results. In that case, the election commission said, the by-election would have to wait until the issue was resolved.

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