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Taiwan Rock Star Politician Faces Recall Vote

Staff and volunteers have been hard at work at Freddy Lim’s office in Wanhua, Taipei, which has become the central hub for his anti-recall campaign. (Erin Hale/VOA)

He is known to many Taiwanese simply as “Freddy,” but despite household name recognition and international fame as the lead vocalist of a heavy metal band, rock star-turned-legislator Freddy Lim is the latest of Taiwan’s new crop of crop of young and pro-independence politicians facing a conservative-led recall vote.

Wanhua and Zhongzheng district voters will decide Sunday whether Lim should continue to represent them after his loyalty came under question for lack of action during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Wanhua came to national attention in May when health officials traced Taiwan’s worst COVID-19 outbreak to its hostess bars and markets.

As Taiwan faced weeks of semilockdown, Lim came under fire from some Wanhua residents for not visiting local sites affected by the outbreak or defending them from national criticism. He has also been portrayed as taking the side of the central government against Taipei’s mayor during disputes about pandemic measures by critics such as Taipei City Councilor Chung Hsiao-ping.

A petition later started by a local constituent and backed by Chung and another local politician gathered enough votes for a recall, although a minimum 25% of the districts’ voters must participate on Sunday for the vote to be valid.

Chung’s office did not immediately reply to VOA’s request for comment.

“This campaign was started by people who are more radical and extreme and it's a [criticism]-based campaign against Freddy,” Fidel Foo, Lim’s public relations officer, said outside of Lim’s Wanhua office this week.

Foo said that while he expected a relatively low voter turnout, defending a legislator from a recall campaign can be very difficult.

“It's easier to mobilize people based on negative emotions and hatred, it’s harder to counteract and say we have to oppose these people,” Foo told VOA.

Campaign flyers distributed in Wanhua have criticized Lim for allegedly not spending enough time in the area and being unconcerned with local issues. Some attacks have also become more personal, attacking Lim for not spending enough time serving in the military and even his physical appearance.

Campaign material seen outside Freddy Lim’s office in Wanhua, Taipei, Jan. 6, 2021. His team has distributed materials across his legislative districts to urge voters to keep in office. (Erin Hale/VOA)
Campaign material seen outside Freddy Lim’s office in Wanhua, Taipei, Jan. 6, 2021. His team has distributed materials across his legislative districts to urge voters to keep in office. (Erin Hale/VOA)

Factional politics may have also earned Lim a target on his back. During Wanhua’s COVID-19 outbreak, he sided with the central government and Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung over local leaders such as Taipei Mayor Ke Wen-je. Critics also said he did little to vocally support Wanhua, which was heavily criticized online by people angry about the outbreak.

As a political independent, Lim is to the left of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, but President Tsai Ing-wen and other party heavyweights have stumped for Lim.

Lim switched to running as an independent in 2019 after stepping away from the New Power Party, which he co-founded in the wake of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement, a mass student-led protest against a Chinese trade deal.

At the time, Lim said he was leaving the party to support Tsai’s reelection as president, but his political views remain unchanged. Both Lim and the New Power Party have called for formal independence from China, which views Taiwan as a wayward province.

Many of Lim’s views also reflect a Taiwanese generational split between older and more conservative voters and those who came of age after martial law ended in the 1980s.

Taiwanese increasingly see Taiwan as effectively independent and want to maintain autonomy from China. This view is particularly strong among younger voters, who see themselves as distinctively Taiwanese and feel little allegiance to China, despite cultural and historic ties.

Vocally supporting independence, however, is still a minority view among Taiwanese politicians, as many fear it would stoke China’s anger and retaliation. It also rankles conservative voters who either hope for Taiwan and China to eventually unify or want a better bilateral relationship that would help Taiwan’s economy.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has been a vocal supporter of legislator Freddy Lim as he faces a recall vote. (Erin Hale/VOA)
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has been a vocal supporter of legislator Freddy Lim as he faces a recall vote. (Erin Hale/VOA)

Three politicians representing Taiwan’s younger pro-independence demographic have targeted by recall votes over the past two years.

It has been a challenging turn of events for Taiwan’s left, which in 2020 led a landslide recall of Kaohsiung Mayor and 2020 Kuominting, or Chinese Nationalist party, presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Now, they have found the tactic turned on them in a way that may not have initially imagined possible.

“This wave of recall against pro-independence-leaning young politicians is a response to Han Guo-yu getting recalled back in June 2020. It was young, pro-independence-leaning folks who recalled Han Guo-yu,” said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

The conservative response, he said, is “to weaponize this recall tactic against those that hurt them.”

“Freddy is an easy target because of those young politicians, he is the most famous,” he said.

Chih-yung Ho, a member of the nationalist party and a former party spokesperson, said that while his party had been involved in past recall votes, the anti-Lim campaign was a “local” issue. The party leadership, he said, has been more focused on another election that day in the city of Taichung.

Taiwan’s recall wave is possible because of 2016 electoral law changes lowering the threshold of voters needed from 50% to 25% for a recall to be binding. Some political scientists are concerned because politicians can now be removed by fewer votes than needed to win their seat and for different reasons than intended by the law.

“People tend to use recall election in cases of extreme corruption or extreme impact, but increasingly, we see them getting used much more, not quite on daily basis, but with much higher frequency than would be normal for a well-functioning democracy,” said Wen-ti Sung, a Taiwan Fellow in Political Science at National Taiwan University.