Following its failed battle to remove Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) through recall proceedings, the Appendectomy Project has been hit with NT$600,000 in fines for allegedly breaching Article 86 of the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法), which forbids publicizing ongoing recall campaigns. No one should be surprised by either of those events.
A look at the growing global use of recall procedures shows that voters are increasingly looking to kick out elected officials. We also see officials willing to use whatever methods are available to cling to their positions.
The newfound popularity of the recall election can be seen across the globe. The US, where it is available for use only at the state and local levels, has been the highest-profile user, thanks to the election of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California in 2003.
However, that is just the start of it. Over the past 13 years, the US governors of California and Wisconsin have faced recall elections, as have 22 state legislators and thousands of mayors, city council members, school board officials and other elected officials. Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez faced a recall election and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, is being threatened with one. Over the past few years, the Romanian president and the mayors of Warsaw and Lima have all survived recall bids.
Reasons for the newfound appreciation for the recall election are varied. One reason is that in some countries, voters have only recently had a say in choosing their leaders. Now that they have that option, they like to exercise it. Of course, this does not explain the popularity of recall elections in countries with a long democratic tradition. There, we are seeing power devolve to the broader group of voters, who have become used to using direct-democracy devices. These direct votes have created an expectation that citizens will get to decide for themselves the pressing issues of the day. The recall follows this line of thinking, by making elected officials more accountable for their actions.
Other more prosaic reasons are helping fuel recalls. Technology has made it easier to run elections. The Internet, e-mail and social media allow unconnected voters to be drawn into a fight over a politician’s alleged misdeeds. Smartphones, spreadsheets and demographic data can maximize signature-gathering efforts.
Even basic items like printers and word-processing programs have helped the cause for making a low-cost political campaign more accessible to grassroots voters.
Tied in with this, recall elections have a high success rate — more than 50 percent of US officials who faced recall elections have lost their seats. This number is particularly stark when you factor in incumbents, who generally have a big advantage when they run, with a re-election rate of about 75 to 85 percent.
However, recalls result in a backlash. As Appendectomy Project leaders are finding out, supporters of recall efforts frequently run into problems with the law and elected officials.
In the US, we constantly see officials try to stop a recall by refusing to schedule a special election. This can result in officials using absurd interpretations of the law — as happened in Crystal City, Texas, which prompted the Washington Post to ask: “[Is Crystal City] the most corrupt little town in America?”