Total Recall: A Demand for Accountability From Elected OfficialsEfforts by the public to unseat an underperforming legislator on February 14 are the first steps in a campaign seeking to make all politicians more accountable
What would be a memorable way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year? For many residents of the Neihu and Nangang districts in Taipei, it will be to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right as citizens to recall an incompetent lawmaker — Alex Tsai (蔡正元) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The irony is, the government asks you to act by recalling only in secrecy: Don’t ask, and don’t tell anything about the recall campaign.
The Appendectomy Project — a campaign initiated by civic groups, students and academics — has an ambitious mission: To ensure accountability by reviewing campaign promises by elected officials, and removing incompetent ones from office. This has never been done in Taiwan, at least not in the past 40 years, since the amended Election and Recall Law came into force. Late last year, the campaign satisfied requirements for the first two stages of the process: a signature drive and endorsements (2% and 13% of the constituents from the electorates, respectively). The next step is the recall itself, which needs approval by 50% of the constituents of the two districts on Feb. 14.
Responding to the recall campaign is highly legitimate on both moral and legal grounds. By overcoming both legal and human-created barriers to the recall, the people of Taiwan are likely to break new ground in democratic progress.
Tsai’s failures on moral grounds
Morality, broadly defined, is the quality of acts being in accordance with standards of right or good conduct. By many accounts, Tsai has failed to meet those standards, such as in the delivery of his campaign promises to his voters; his unethical and unprofessional behavior in the Legislative Yuan; and mismanagement of KMT candidate Sean Lien’s (連勝文) mayoral election campaign.
Mr. Tsai has failed to fulfill his promises to represent the constituents in his districts. According to a congressional watchdog, Tsai has among the lowest attendance records at the legislature (54%) since 2008 and has been at the bottom of the attendance records in the past 12 legislative sessions. In the 2004 legislative sessions, not only was he also on the lowest attendance watch list, his numbers were even lower than that of legislators representing remote districts. For that period, he was at the very bottom in terms of sponsorship of new laws or introduction of amendments (n=2).
In addition, in recent years Tsai has consistently voted exclusively along the party line, and failed to deliver his promises to represent the constituents in his districts.
As Lien’s campaign manager during last year’s Taipei mayoral election, Tsai made public independent candidate Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) confidential campaign strategies, which he acquired via unnamed sources and perhaps even by illegal means.
Moreover, Tsai has often made discriminatory and inflammatory remarks, highlighting his intolerance against new immigrants and individuals with special needs.
In a legislative session on the children of immigrants, Tsai said, “The second generation of new immigrants will be a hidden threat to society.” Several advocacy groups accused Tsai of making “abusive accusations” under the umbrella of freedom of speech in the legislature. On the campaign trail for Mr. Lien, Tsai jokingly alluded to Ko’s alleged condition (Asperger’s Syndrome) as the three “Fakesperger’s symptoms,” comments that were grossly insensitive to people living with such disabilities.
Borderline illegal acts
Of the laws that Mr. Tsai did introduce, many represented the objectives of the wealthy and vested interest groups. Among other things, he co-sponsored a gambling law in Taiwan, and was extremely supportive of the violent removal of students and journalists during protests over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China last year.
With regards to the gambling law, Tsai and fellow legislator Chen Ching-chang (陳慶章) jointly introduced a controversial law aiming to profit the developers of the so-called “Taoyuan Airport City,” a troubled endeavor approved by former Taoyuan county commissioner John Wu (吳志揚) that is now under investigation.
Tsai also stands accused of abusing his legislator’s privileges on budgeting. He took advantage of such instruments to silence his opponents. Among other things, he threatened to reduce the budget for Academia Sinica, the nation’s top research institute, by half, in an attempt to silence Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), an active advocate against the monopolization of the media and Chinese influence in the sector, as well as a strong supporter of the Sunflower Movement. By doing so, Tsai infringed on free speech and abused the powers and privileges that were granted him by the people.
Barriers to recalling elected officials
Several barriers exist to prevent a recall.
First, Taiwan legislature has set a high bar to avoid the recalling of legislators becoming a reality. As discussed earlier, there are three stages to make a recall happen: the 2%, 13% and 50% requirements. Such a high bar constitutes an unreasonable barrier for citizens to exercise their right to recall unfit elected officials.
Second is the reduced availability of voting stations and booths. The number of voting booths and locations in Neihu and Nangang has shrunk by more than 40% — from 258 in the 2014 elections to 135 at present. By doing so, the Central Election Commission (CEC) has created another barrier for the voters in Nangang and Neihu who wish to exercise their recall rights on Feb. 14 (between 8am and 4pm).
Third, neither advertisement nor promotion of the exercise is allowed. The CEC emphasized that although the recently amended Election and Recall Law authorizes advertisement for a recall campaign, it will not be effective until after Feb. 14, 2015. That is to say, advertising or promoting the recall event, in any shape or form, remains strictly prohibited.
A milestone in Taiwan’s democracy
If successful, the recall campaign will mark a milestone for Taiwan’s democracy. The campaign is the very first time that the Taiwanese public exercises its right of recall guaranteed by the Constitution. The unreasonably high requirements to initiate a recall are a barrier, and as such a reminder that further amendments to the law are needed to render recalls more feasible and thereby increase the accountability of elected officials.
Though Tsai is the first target, voters should closely monitor all elected officials and hold them accountable. Politicians should know that winning an election no longer means entitlement and access to power and privileges alone. As the Chinese saying goes, it’s not just a golden rice bowl, but also a commitment to deliver public services.
All campaign promises should be carried out to the extent possible and highly scrutinized by the public. We are in the first miles of a journey to demand accountability from all elected officials, a journey that is long overdue.
C. Ed Hsu is adjunct professor teaching policy and health management in California. He is currently visiting NCKU in Tainan and can be reached at: email@example.com