High-profile Taiwan mayor loses recall vote in blow for opposition

FILE PHOTO: Kuomintang party's presidential candidate Han speaks to his supporters at an election rally in Taichung

By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A high-profile mayor from Taiwan's main opposition party lost an acrimonious recall vote on Saturday, auguring new problems for the party that is already reeling from losing January elections on the back of strong anti-China sentiment.

The Kuomintang (KMT) was badly beaten in January's presidential and parliamentary polls. Since then, under a youthful new leader, Johnny Chiang, the party has tried to rethink its unpopular policy of seeking closer ties with China, which claims Taiwan as its sacred territory.

The KMT's presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, had won the mayorship of the southern city of Kaohsiung in late 2018, an upset given it had previously been a stronghold for Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But he faced sustained criticism that he lacked interest in the city, especially when he took a three-month leave of absence from his new mayoral duties to run for president. Saturday's vote was on whether he should be recalled as mayor.

Han, who had called on people to boycott the vote and go shopping instead, told reporters after the vote went against him that he had been the victim of DPP smears, though did not say whether he would challenge the result in court.

"This was an unfair, unjust election," Han said.

The DPP said in a statement the election proved that power comes from the people and called it an "important milestone in the history of Taiwan's democratic development".

KMT Chairman Chiang said the party respected the result, and expressed "remorse" it went against them.

"We did not properly grasp the warmth of Kaohsiung's citizens, and we did not respond well to the expectations of Kaohsiung's people," he said.

As of 6 p.m. (1000 GMT), the city election commission said more than 900,000 people voted for Han to be recalled, against some 25,000 who voted against the recall.

Taiwan's election commission still has to formally approve the decision, expected to take a week. Once it does, Han will be dismissed and a new mayoral election will be called within three months, in which he cannot run.

The election commission approved the recall vote after a petition organised by WeCare Kaohsiung, a civic group, which applauded the result.

The DPP won January's elections on promises to stand up to China, portraying a vote for the KMT as a vote for China's Communist Party, a charge the KMT strongly and repeatedly rejected.

Democratic Taiwan has shown no desire to be ruled by autocratic China, which has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

The recall vote took place amid renewed anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong against a Beijing-imposed security law that critics say would undermine most freedoms. The protesters have strong cross-party support in Taiwan.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Roger Tung; Editing by Frances Kerry)