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Han Kuo-yu manipulates democracy to avoid recall vote humiliation

Kaohsiung has chance to oust failed mayor this week but he's using every trick in book to frustrate process

Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (Kaohsiung City Government photo)

Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (Kaohsiung City Government photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — This time last week there was torrential rain in Kaohsiung and large areas of the city were underwater.

Torrential rains are not unusual in the tropical south of Taiwan, but until recently flooding in Kaohsiung was relatively rare. After Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) was elected mayor, things began to change for the worse.

Mayor Han decided that he didn’t want to spend public money on tending to public parks or unblocking drains. It was quickly apparent to everyone living in the city that such works were being scaled back, at the same time as Han hired aides on fat salaries and inflated the city’s marketing budgets.

It was not difficult to predict what would happen. Last week, hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded.

These were properties that hadn’t flooded for years. The responsibility for those floods lay at the doorstep of one man: Han Kuo-yu.

This Saturday (June 6), the people of Kaohsiung will have the opportunity to remove Han from office, just 18 months after his inauguration. In an unprecedented move, the citizens of Kaohsiung have taken matters into their own hands and used the new Civil Servants Election and Recall Act to force a recall vote — essentially a referendum on his time as mayor.

It was a popular process from the very start. In January of this year, a petition signed by 28,560 people (more than 1 percent of the Kaohsiung electorate) was accepted by the Kaohsiung Electoral Commission.

On April 7, it verified 377,662 people for the second-phase petition. This was well over the required threshold of 10 percent of the electorate needed to force the recall vote.

The scene is now set for a landmark vote. If Han loses, he will face the humiliation of going from presidential candidate to ex-mayor in less than six months.

Legal wrangling

It has surprised no one that Han has pulled out all the stops to undermine the recall vote and retain his office. But the lengths that Han has gone in order to defy the democratic will of the Kaohsiung people is truly staggering, even for a politician who looks so favorably on the practices of the Chinese communist regime.

The Kaohsiung City Electoral Commission, which has the power to determine the validity of the recall petitions, is headed by one of the many deputy mayors appointed by Han. Giving someone oversight over this process to someone who is likely to lose their job if Han is thrown out is clearly a conflict of interest, but there was nothing his opponents could do about this.

Instead, they wisely went beyond what was required. They collected well over half a million signatures in the end but chose to go through these one at a time to weed out any they felt would be excluded by the remarkably strict criteria Han’s Electoral Commission had decided to implement.

The day after approval was given, Han’s lawyers immediately announced plans to seek an injunction against the vote. Their spurious claims centered on the idea that collecting signatures before Han had served a year in office was in violation of the terms of the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act.

The application was swiftly dismissed by the Administration Court, with the judge criticizing Han’s lawyers for failing to demonstrate any urgent need for an injunction. The next trick his lawyers tried was to use the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to delay the vote, arguing that Kaohsiung citizens would not be safe going to the polls.

Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) decided to proceed and have implemented several new procedures, including the disinfection of polling booths.

Given the huge success Han’s presidential election conqueror President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her administration have had in controlling the outbreak in Taiwan, this proved to be the right decision.

Subversion and repression

Han’s attempts to find a legal loophole to avoid facing a public vote was just the start. Since the recall vote was given the go-ahead, he has used every dirty trick in the book to try and bypass the democratic process.

It might be expected that polling stations for the recall vote would be the same as those used for the recent elections and all previous democratic elections and referenda in Kaohsiung. But the Kaohsiung City Election Bureau has put pressure on schools not to allow classrooms to be used as polling stations.

They have told schools the vote will put their students at risk of Wuhan coronavirus, despite no local cases reported anywhere in Taiwan for 50 days. They have also argued that it will disrupt students learning.

The bureau has also pressured schools to only lend one or two classrooms, which is likely to lead to lengthy queues at polling stations. This will dissuade some people from voting, while others could find themselves disenfranchised if they can’t vote within the allotted time.

This appears to be an unashamed and blatant attempt to prevent the recall vote from reaching the 25 percent turnout that is required for the result to be valid.

This is not the only way Han has tried to exploit the outbreak to frustrate his opponents either. He has introduced strict new rules that ban gatherings of more than three people, which some critics have described as being akin to the martial law era.

Police and local government officials are under strict instructions to break up groups of more than three people who are found gathering in public places to campaign against Han. Campaigners have been prevented from holding signs, handing out leaflets, or visiting night markets.

All of these were common campaign tactics in previous elections, but for some reason, Han doesn’t want them to happen for the recall vote. It is also notable that this law seems to be being applied far more rigorously against Han’s opponents than his supporters.

It is no surprise that adverts backing both sides have begun springing up across Kaohsiung. As is common at election time, many of these have been hung on old billboards that have out-of-date adverts.

Usually, this practice is tolerated. But this time, Kaohsiung city officials have been trawling the streets and removing any anti-Han billboards they can. For some reason, they have been far less efficient in taking down those posters in support of Mayor Han.

A campaign of intimidation

Then there is Han’s messaging to his own supporters.

Firstly, he has told them not to take part in the recall election. This can be interpreted in two possible ways.

It is either a flagrant attempt to try and keep turnout below the 25 percent threshold and so render the vote invalid, or it is a device to allow him to make the case the vote is invalid because his supporters didn’t participate when he loses.

Whichever is the case, it is a move that shows all too clearly that Han is far from confident about winning the vote.

But there is more. He has also told his voters to attend polling stations on the day of the vote and keep a record of everyone who does come out to vote.

This is a genuinely terrifying instruction. It is quite clearly a threat to anyone who might waver in their opinion, or a former supporter who now opposes him, that he will know who voted against him.

Then there are the instructions he has issued to the village chiefs (里長) across the city.

In most elections, polling cards and other official paperwork are given out to every household by the village chief. In this election, lots have been marked with the wrong address — a highly unusual error that strongly suggests the Kaohsiung City Election Bureau is trying to undermine this ballot by making it as chaotic as possible.

Han has also required village chiefs to make everyone sign for their polling cards too — a practice that has never been implemented before and is clearly an attempt to disenfranchise and intimidate voters. If Han supporters are not voting, collecting your polling card is a clear indication that you oppose Han and in some areas, this could lead to intimidation or worse.

The clear suggestion from this move and posting his heavies outside polling stations is that if you oppose Han, we know who you are and there will be repercussions. The use of threats in this way might be common in Han’s beloved People’s Republic of China, but it has no place in a democratic country like Taiwan.

Consigning Han to history books

At a time when Han’s negligence as mayor has caused much of the city to be flooded, the mayor himself is also flooding the city with dangerous anti-democratic sentiment.

Han rose to power on a wave of populism, rhetoric, and fake news and clearly believed that the same strong-arm tactics used by his Chinese backers would help him to take control of Taiwan too.

His dismal failure in the presidential election showed that the Taiwanese people will not be fooled twice. Now the people of Kaohsiung are ready to pass judgment on his woeful term.

His odious attempts to frustrate the democratic process and cling to power have all the hallmarks of the anti-democratic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) he so admires. They must not be allowed to succeed.

Kaohsiung is a wonderful, vibrant city that developed so much during Mayor Chen Chu’s (陳菊) time in office. It deserves so much better than Han Kuo-yu, and this recall vote is the opportunity for the people of Kaohsiung to put right their mistake of November 2018 and make history by becoming the first Taiwan city to recall a failing mayor

Han's actions show that he is scared to put his record up to public scrutiny. But he has no choice in that matter now.

On June 6, the people of Kaohsiung have the opportunity to banish Han back to his illegally built house in Yunlin once and for all. All that is needed is a 25 percent turnout and a simple majority in favor.

There is no room for complacency. Everyone needs to go and vote to recall him.

It is time for my fellow Kaohsiungers to do the right thing and remove this lying, manipulative, incompetent, and destructive mayor from office once and for all.