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Will Freddy Lim survive the recall?

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Independent Legislator Freddy Lim. 

Independent Legislator Freddy Lim.  (CNA photo)

Following the successful recall of Taiwan Statebuilding Party Legislator Wonda Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟 aka 3Q) in October, many are drawing comparisons between Chen and the recall vote coming up on Jan. 9 against Independent Legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) and predicting he will be the next to fall.

While there are indeed similarities between the two, there are some key differences that give Lim more of a fighting chance.

The similarities include neither being in a major party, being staunchly pro-Taiwan, and taking stances on some issues that are outside the mainstream of public opinion, such as supporting marijuana legalization. Lim helped campaign against Chen’s recall and spoke out against it after it passed.

Supporters of the recall need to pass a minimum threshold of 25% of the electorate and outnumber the opponents. Turnout will be critical, and on this Lim has some things going for him — but also some things to be concerned about.

The biggest problem for Lim is that his district, which includes Taipei’s Wanhua District and parts of Zhongzheng District, leans Kuomintang (KMT). In the recent referendum, Lim's district sided with the KMT on three of the four issues, and it has been pointed out that the number of constituents that voted with the KMT in the referendum surpassed the number necessary to recall him.

Lim's own polling paints a mixed picture, with 22% supporting his recall and 20% opposing it. Worse for him is that 80% of recall supporters say they are actually planning to vote, while only 58% of those opposed plan to cast their ballots.

The poll underscores the importance of turnout. Since 22% is below the threshold and 80% of that is below 18%, Lim's team will need to convince a large number of undecided voters to turn out and boost those numbers.

Another problem for Lim is some controversy raised after the coronavirus outbreak in his district in which he seemed to back the government when an official appeared to try to absolve the central health authorities of responsibility. Lim was also criticized for a press conference held at a local night market, with critics saying he only visited it for publicity and during elections.

Those controversies are fairly mild, however.

In a sense, the voters have already had a chance to “recall” him. He won the seat under the banner of the New Power Party (NPP) in 2016 with a margin of 4% and won it again in 2020 by 3% as an independent.

That sets him apart from the other “revenge recall” politicians targeted by the pan-blue (pro-KMT) camp following the successful recall of KMT Kaohsiung Mayor Daniel Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). All the others were in their first term.

That he has been re-elected speaks volumes about how his character is perceived. After all, he was backed by voters in spite of having been the long-haired frontman of death metal band Chthonic (and former head of Amnesty International Taiwan) — hardly a “normal” politician.

As a person, he comes across as likable, positive, caring and constructive. This is important, as the two successful recalls — against Chen and Taoyuan City Councilor Wang Hao-yu (王浩宇) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — were against characters with combative personalities known for creating controversy, and in Chen’s case physically fighting with KMT lawmakers in the legislature.

An unsuccessful recall against independent Kaohsiung City Councilor Huang Jie (黃捷), however, failed to gain much traction. Unlike Chen and Wang, her public persona is kind and positive — it’s difficult to mobilize people to vote to oust someone who is hard to hate.

Using past recalls and the referendum as a reference, they usually have a turnout rate in the low 40s, with the exception of Chen’s, which was in the low 50s. If the turnout does stay in the low 40s then it will be hard for the recall supporters to manage to pass the 25% threshold.

In Chen’s case, the high turnout in support of his recall probably comes down to two factors, neither of which is a problem for Lim: his combative and controversial personality and get-out-the-vote efforts by the Taichung KMT's Black Faction. There is no way to know how effective the Black Faction was, but by Chen’s estimate it turned out 20,000 people — which made all the difference in that narrow race.

Lim is likable, and there is no local equivalent to the Black Faction with anywhere near the same power in his district. His opponents are going to have to work very hard to topple him.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.