OPINION: Huang Kuo-chang Survives Recall Vote and Faces Uncertain Future

OPINION: Huang Kuo-chang Survives Recall Vote and Faces Uncertain Future

What you need to know

New Power Party Chair Huang Kuo-chang's survival of a recall vote without support from the Democratic Progressive Party opens a new chapter in his party's future.

New Power Party (NPP) chairman Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) has survived the recall vote organized against him by anti-gay marriage groups in his electoral district of New Taipei’s 12th constituency.

This was due to the poll not meeting the required 63,888 votes needed to recall him. Under current recall laws, over 25 percent of eligible voters would have to vote in favor of recalling Huang, but recall supporters were unable to mobilize sufficient numbers. The overall turnout amounted to only 28 percent of New Taipei 12th’s eligible electors.

A total of 70,032 voted in the recall vote. This more or less corresponds with what some scholars predicted before the vote, that the benchmarks needed to pass the recall would not be met.

However, 48,370 voted to recall Huang while just 21,762 opposed it, hardly a vote of confidence. The recall vote facing Huang was over a single issue, his constant and unwavering support of legalizing gay marriage in Taiwan, which led conservative groups to target him as a means to demonstrate opposition to gay marriage.

Recall advovates

These groups were led by the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance. But it is also widely suspected that KMT politicians leapt onto the issue and mobilized their support networks as a way of attacking Huang and the NPP, which is consistently critical of of the KMT. KMT spokesperson and legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元), himself a target of past recall campaigns, stated that he looked forward to Huang being recalled.

Tsai_Cheng-Yuan 蔡正元
Photo Credit: CC0
KMT legislator Alex Tsai is disappointed Huang survived the recall vote.

More pragmatically, KMT politicians hoped to recall Huang in order to reclaim the New Taipei District 12th, traditionally a light blue territory.

Indeed it is the fact that the district, whose major population center is Xizhi, is traditionally an older, more conservative, and pan-blue leaning district, which made the recall threat so severe for Huang, who is a Xizhi native. The NPP broadly adopted the strategy of running in traditionally light blue districts in 2016 legislative elections to avoid conflict and split votes with the DPP.

In line with a trend of strengthening Taiwanese identity, pan-blue districts tend to stay pan-green once they switch over, and the NPP was generally successful in the districts where it ran candidates – only losing in Hsinchu, in which Ker Chien-Ming (柯建銘) of the DPP refused to make way for the NPP candidate, Handy Chiu.

Yet before the vote, it was still generally a question as to how New Taipei District 12 voters would behave. While progressive, youth-led social movements have taken Taiwanese politics by storm since the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the past year has seen the rise of a number of conservative social movements, including opposition to gay marriage as fronted by the Protect the Family Alliance, various Christian groups, and military veterans opposed to pension reform. And though progressive, youth-led social movements have utilized innovative strategies to educate and mobilize youth voters using the Internet and social media, and organized online campaigns in support of Huang, older voters consume information through other means, such as traditional media – newspapers and television – or through Line groups.

Sunflower Movement activists likely did not anticipate that progressive legislators such as Huang would become targets of conservative social movements using the recall measures that they themselves had pushed into law.

Likewise, without the impetus of national elections, it was a question whether Huang could mobilize enough voters to remain in power. It may also be more difficult to mobilize voters to oppose a referendum than to support it. Indeed, the irony of the eventually successful push by post-Sunflower Movement activists to change laws regulating recall votes is that the changes may make it easier to recall legislators than for them to be voted in. Yet past recall efforts by Sunflower Movement activists against hated KMT legislators such as Alex Tsai, Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠), Wu Yu-sheng (吳育昇), and Lin Hung-chih (林鴻池) were unsuccessful. And, seeing as the emergence of conservative social movements was anticipated by few, Sunflower Movement activists likely did not anticipate that progressive legislators such as Huang would become targets of conservative social movements using the recall measures that they themselves had pushed into law.

Huang emphasized in the press conference after the results of elections became clear that he and the NPP power party still intend to push for experimental, progressive ideals aimed at realizing democracy, including the use of recall votes against legislators. But while Huang has survived his recall vote, it should perhaps be sobering for youth activists to see such results. Conservative social forces still exist within Taiwanese society and command substantial force.

No amount of outreach or intelligent and creative messaging by youth activists may change the views of such individuals either, who may simply be set in their ways. For example, in a televised debate with Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance chair Sun Chi-Cheng (孫繼正), Huang was the undisputed winner. Among the strange claims that Sun made on air was that he had been told by a father that 10 years ago Huang Kuo-Chang had brainwashed his daughter, that the NPP supports the legalization of drugs and the baseless accusation that Huang Kuo-chang had engaged in vote buying. Sun ended the debate by exhorting viewers to “Remember four characters on Dec. 16: ‘Recall Huang Kuo-chang!’” (12月16日蓋下四個字「罷免黃國昌」) despite the fact that this is five characters, not four.

Generation gaps?

Yet such a poor performance by Sun did not prevent those who were intent on recalling Huang from mobilizing. Ironically, despite comments inflating his own self-importance in claiming that he was a “Great father doing a great thing” in voting to recall Huang, Sun’s own mother voted against recalling Huang, illustrating perhaps that the differences between progressives and conservatives in Taiwan does not boil down in absolute terms to young people versus older people.

With Huang’s survival, a gauntlet has been thrown down over a number of issues concerning the NPP and other third force parties. The NPP was able to survive a recall vote without support from the DPP, which made campaign promises during 2016 elections to legalize gay marriage but later backed down on the issue due to internal divisions. This will dampen criticism that the NPP and other third force parties only secured victory in 2016 legislative elections because of the DPP's endorsement, and the fact they stood aside in districts fielding third force candidates.

Indeed, given that Huang is the NPP's leading figure, some suggested his defeat would lead the party a whole being viewed as unsustainable. Conventional wisdom suggested Huang would run for
mayor of New Taipei City if recalled. Though such a run might have raised his profile, victory would have likely been an uphill struggle, but he would likely have had few other political avenues available.

Yet, given the NPP’s current plans to run candidates in constituencies across Taiwan where it got better vote shares in 2016, rather than simply those places where it will not come into conflict with the DPP, this raises the possibility of the NPP coming into conflict with the DPP in the future.

Other third force parties will also benefit from the NPP’s survivability. Following the recall vote, the NPP will be able to leverage the DPP’s inaction and call out its hypocrisy over not only its stalling on marriage equality, but also the government's planned labor reforms and other issues which stand to deepen DPP division and enrage the Taiwanese public. Much will depend on how the NPP is able to spin the narrative of Huang’s survival.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

TNL Editor: David Green