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Recall and referendum reform would be a mistake for Taiwan

Changing a system that is working in their favor would do the DPP more harm than good

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Ballot counting during referendum. 

Ballot counting during referendum.  (CNA photo)

The past month in Taiwanese politics has been dominated by two things: referendums and recalls.

Back on December 18th, there were four referendums held on topics as diverse as nuclear power, pork imports, and a liquified natural gas port in Taoyuan. All four issues were supported by opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) and all four were defeated.

Then last week, the KMT's Yen Kuan-heng (顏寬恒) lost to the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Lin Ching-yi (林靜儀) in a by-election in Taichung caused by the political -motivated recall of Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party.

On the same day, independent Legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) survived a recall motion in Taipei — again triggered by a KMT.

With recent elections illustrating the stark chasm between the KMT’s political positions and Taiwanese public opinion, you would be mistaken for thinking that DPP politicians would be reveling in their success and seeking to make maximum political capital out of the recent results.

Instead, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been making the case that recalls should not be used as a political weapon, and DPP legislators have indicated that they will seek to amend the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act to stop this from happening.

The arguments in favor of this move were summarized concisely by James Chen in his letter to the editor earlier this week. Essentially, he argues the KMT is still out for revenge after the ousting of former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) in a recall vote, that such recalls are a waste of public funds, and that the current threshold for a recall is too low.

These are all valid criticisms and points for debate, but the DPP moving to change the rules now on either recall votes or referendums would be a massive mistake and only enable them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As things stand, the KMT is reeling from a barrage of electoral defeats and is struggling to justify its political relevance in modern-day Taiwan. The DPP, on the other hand, has won all the recent votes and even managed to use the current recall mechanism to remove arguably the most dangerous pro-China politician that Taiwan has seen in a generation (Han Kuo-yu) back in 2020.

There is no political capital to be gained from changing a system that is already working for the DPP. But there is political capital to be lost by doing so.

If the DPP seeks to make changes to the legislation on how referendums are run and recalls can be triggered, it is opening itself up to widespread criticism for attacking Taiwanese democracy in order to shore up its own power base.

The KMT will accuse the DPP of seeking to cling to power, trying to avoid the scrutiny of the Taiwanese public, and seeking to silence those who disagree with them. Accusations of hypocrisy aimed back at the KMT (valid though they might be) would be lost in the throng.

It would be an entirely self-inflicted wound and one that has the potential to hit the DPP in the one place it hurts… the ballot box.

What if things are left as they are?

The KMT will doubtless continue to attempt spurious politically motivated recalls. If recent results are anything to go by, most of these will fail. Some may succeed and the DPP and smaller pan-green political parties could lose good legislators and officials, but this is frankly a price worth paying.

Likewise, the KMT will most assuredly seek to push their own political agenda through the medium of referendums. But as seen with the recent recall votes, most Taiwanese can see through this flagrant politicking, and while there may be the odd success, most will fail (either because of public opposition or failure to reach the threshold).

Around the world, democracy is under strain as authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere seek to undermine it.

Taiwanese democracy is a beacon in the Indo-Pacific region and ensures that the Taiwanese people have the opportunity to vote directly on issues that matter, and recalling legislators they don’t feel represent them is a key component of that. It is a form of direct democracy that is all too rare, even in more established democratic systems, and this is something that Taiwan should treasure.

Any move to undermine that, even with the very best of intentions, would be a mistake that runs the risk of harming not just the DPP as a party but Taiwan as a country.

Yes, many recalls and referendums are pointless and politically motivated. Yes, many are a complete and unnecessary waste of public money. But this is a small price to pay to protect Taiwan’s democracy and its growing reputation among its fellow democratic nations.

With the DPP having everything to lose and nothing to gain by changing the system, this is one aspect of Taiwanese politics where the status quo really is the best option.