Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s third biggest city with a population of roughly 2.8 million residents. Before China started reemerging as a political and economic superpower in the 1990s, it was among the world’s five busiest harbors. At present it holds position 14.
Its residents on June 6th, 2020 overwhelmingly voted to remove Mayor Han Kuo-yu from office. The 939,090 votes in favor of the recall were more than Han, 62, had garnered in the mayoral election in November 2018. More than 42% of the eligible 2.29 million inhabitants casted their approval for Han to step down–well above the 570,000-threshold required to oust him. Han, of the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), after two decades had taken the city from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with 892,545 or 53.86% of the votes.
Expressing deep regret and describing the whole motion as “unfair,” Han led city government officials in a news conference and took a deep bow, thanking those Kaohsiung residents who had elected him. He spoke of “endless slander” since he lost the presidential election in January of this year, which had reduced the hard work of his team to nothing: an increase in agricultural exports and very successful coronavirus prevention efforts. Han complained about mounting criticism and mudslinging from the DPP, even accusing 90% of the local media to attack him instead of focusing its efforts on administering the country.
According to the Kaohsiung Election Commission, Han will have to step down when it officially announces the result in a week. An acting mayor will take over for three months, until new elections are hold. Since 1975, Taiwan’s electoral law allows to remove officials if enough voters sign a petition backing the measure. Han is the first Taiwanese politician ever to be removed in this way after 12 failed recalls against village heads, members of parliament and even former President Chen Shui-bian. Han himself had survived such a vote as a legislator two decades ago.
Less than eight months into mayoral office, Han had officially announced his bid for the presidency. At the KMT presidential primaries in July 2019, he bet business tycoon and Foxconn founder Terry Gou. He even took three months off from his position for his campaign at national level. That decision upset many Kaohsiung residents. The now successful recall petition against him was initiated in June 2019 by various civic organizations, angered by Han’s sudden presidential ambitions. He was accused of betrayal and not prioritizing the city’s governance.
Besides their disapproval of Han’s concrete actions, voters in Kaohsiung wanted to send a message to Peking that Taiwanese increasingly resent China’s interference in Hong Kong. The special administrative region’s autonomy, granted by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of December 1984 about the future of what was then a British crown colony, is seen to be under serious threat. On May 21st, the Chinese Communists proposed the introduction of a new national security law for the territory which could seriously erode its judiciary system long before the preferential treatment is scheduled to come to an end in 2047.
Therefore, more and more people in Taiwan reject “peaceful unification” under the euphonious “One country, two systems” formula proposed by the Red Mandarins, because they regard Hong Kong as a failed example. The protesters there enjoy widespread public sympathy in Taiwan and almost unanimous support. China’s persistent military threats and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan aren’t helpful either. In consequence, Han’s humiliation will likely further strengthen incumbent President Tsai Ying-wen and the DPP as a whole, because they vehemently oppose the “One-China policy”.
Regarding the KMT, it might trigger a new round of infighting and damage the party’s chances not only in the 2022 local elections, but also in the 2024 presidential poll. Current KMT chairman Johnny Chiang, a young KMT leader elected in March of this year, might be accused by the old guard formed mostly by “Mainlanders“ of failing to help save Han, whose parents also escaped with Chiang Kai-shek from China in 1949.
After betting on the wrong horse by choosing Han over Gou that would be another big strategical mistake. A new generation in the KMT needs to reform the party’s current worn-out image from scratch or it might simply disappear. At the same time, it should capitalize on the growing concerns of the conservative electorate about progressive politics that are slowly going out of hand, like gender studies, feminism, same-sex marriages, Islam, education, minorities, immigration, climate and energy policies, historical accuracy, a realistic handling of formal independence aspirations and last, but not least Taiwan’s identity with its undeniable Chinese cultural roots.
Let’s hope that the rivaling sides can put aside their differences and mend the schism that plagues not only Kaohsiung. Social antagonism is clearly spreading all over Taiwan. That’s worrisome, as the nation needs unity in the face of China’s intentions to take what it considers a rebellious province by force if ultimately needed.
P.D.: Just hours after the announcement of Han’s defeat the speaker of Kaohsiung city council, Hsu Kun-yuan, apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his 17th-floor apartment.