Tens of thousands take to streets in Taiwan to protest for and against presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu

Sarah Zheng

Tens of thousands took to the streets of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung on Saturday to demand the recall of the city’s mayor and opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, who organised his supporters in a large counter rally.

The anti-Han rally, organised by local activists’ group Wecare Kaohsiung, started around 1pm with many marchers accusing him of selling out the city by abandoning it to pursue his presidential ambitions only months after being elected.

Another mass demonstration supporting the mayor officially set off at 1.11pm, a time chosen to match the date of the January 11 presidential election – around 4km (2.5 miles) away.

But despite noisy, impassioned crowds at both rallies, with bots sets of organisers claiming six-figure turnouts, the atmosphere appeared largely peaceful throughout the afternoon.

The two rallies come at a time when Han, from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, has fallen behind in the polls against Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Han Kuo-yu’s supporters gather at the rival demonstration, many dressed in the colour of the Taiwan flag. Photo: CNA

Han was elected Kaohsiung’s mayor last November in a stunning victory that saw him become the first KMT head of the city, a traditional DPP stronghold, in 20 years.

While his political ascent was built on the grass-roots appeal of his economic policies and blunt speaking style, his support has dipped in recent months over verbal gaffes, concerns about his friendlier stance towards Beijing and the perception he has “abandoned” Kaohsiung.

The Han rally started in a celebratory atmosphere with tens of thousands decked out in red, white, and blue – the colours of the flag for the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan – filling Aozihdi Park with periodic chants of “elect Han Kuo-yu! Taiwan is safe, the people will have money!”.

Amid dance performances and upbeat music, people held signs with slogans such as “advance Taiwan, choose Han Kuo-yu!” and “the media smears Han, but the streets support Han!”

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One demonstrator, a 55-year-old retiree surnamed Hong, said he had supported the DPP for 33 years but now came out to support of Han because he had not seen the economic changes he wanted over the past three decades.

“Han Kuo-yu is facing the problems, solving the problems, and giving the next generation hope,” he said.

Hong dismissed accusations Han had “run away” from Kaohsiung, saying: “Its not running away, it’s a promotion, so that we can make fortunes.”

Two other supporters Wong Chen-chen, 60, and Chang Wong-fu, 65, said they supported Han because he “spoke the way that everyday people did” and had fresh ideas for boosting Taiwan.

“The most important thing for us is the country’s stability because it is impossible that we will become like Hong Kong,” Wong said. “Now Hong Kong’s economy is not doing well and the tourists are not coming.”

Han Kuo-yu’s plain-speaking style was seen as a plus by his supporters. Photo: EPA-EFE

Chang, sporting a KMT 2020 hat, said Han had not “abandoned” Kaohsiung but was pushed to run for president by his supporters and the mainland-friendly party.

A married couple, a woman named Weng and a man called Chen, said they had travelled from Taitung city on Friday to show their support for Han and “do our part for the country”.

“Han Kuo-yu is very down-to-earth and determined, so for the first time we feel that Taiwan has hope,” said Weng.

She added that the pair, who are both teachers, had not found a candidate they wanted to vote for in over a decade.

“We have felt that Taiwan is in decline. In this era, Han is a very special individual who can really represent how we ordinary people feel.”

Protesters against Han Kuo-yu gather in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Photo: CNA

Han had earlier urged his supporters to ensure the event was “happy, cheerful, and genuinely joyous”.

“I personally believe that politics does not need to be one where daggers are drawn every day, politics does not need to mix everyone’s hearts together, where people engaged in politics are going through this election in a dark atmosphere since this is not healthy for Taiwan’s democracy,” he said.

“Please remember to bring happiness here, but at the same time, we want to urge those groups trying to recall Han to definitely not use buses to bring non-Kaohsiung people, to hand out bento boxes to outside residents to come to Kaohsiung to recall Kaohsiung’s mayor … doing so would seriously insult the Kaohsiung people’s intellect.”

The rival political events less than 4km (2.5 miles) apart had raised concerns about potential confrontations, but the atmosphere on the streets throughout the afternoon appeared calm.

The city’s police had said they would deploy some 3,200 uniformed officers around the city to maintain order, including two in each subway carriage.

The Wecare activists claimed 500,000 people had turned out, while Han’s supporters said they had attracted 300,000.

The anti-Han protest that started outside Kaohsiung Cultural Centre was similarly loud and colourful.

Many carried slogans backing Tsai’s re-election campaign. Others bore messages that read “Beat it,” “Liar,” “Awakened and “Reset Kaohsiung, defend Taiwan” – a slogan using similar language to the calls adopted by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to “liberate” the city.

Impassioned crowds called for Han to “step down,” and sang songs to the SpongeBob SquarePants theme tune mocking him as a “straw sack” – a nickname prompted by his gaffes and perceived ineptitude.

Wong Rou, a fifty year old Kaohsiung resident working in the fashion industry, said she and her husband arrived at 10am to take part in the recall march.

“I voted for Han Kuo-yu for mayor but after only one year, he has run off to be president,” she said.

“There is so much that he said he would do for Kaohsiung, but he did not follow through. I am so disappointed in him, and he said so much about having fixed the roads but I haven’t seen anything!”

Anti-Han protesters march past a campaign poster supporting President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Sarah Zheng

Siblings Eason and Tracy Chen, 35 and 38, said they had also voted for Han last year.

Tracy said she cared deeply about safeguarding Taiwan’s democracy, and that she felt “tricked” by Han’s economic promises. She also said that many of the comments he had made since being elected were “not very responsible”.

“We thought he was different from traditional Kuomintang candidates, even if his slogans were a bit exaggerated,” Eason said. “But we saw the way he has worked in Kaohsiung, and feel that if he is elected president he will not be able to counter ‘one country, two systems’ [which Beijing wants to use as a model for reunification] in Taiwan.”

City resident Brian Chen, 27, a Tsai supporter, said: “He has done nothing so far for Kaohsiung. If he is elected president, he would sell out Taiwan.”

Chen said the most important issue for him in the election was Taiwan’s democracy, adding he hoped Han supporters would “wake up from living in their own world”.

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Aaron Yin, the founder of Wecare Kaohsiung, criticised Han for creating a “confrontational atmosphere” by intentionally scheduling his rally to coincide with the recall march, which had been in the works for months.

Yin said more than 300,000 had signed a petition to recall Han, although any recall vote was not likely to take place until May or June.

He said residents were taking the rare step to push for a recall in Taiwan because Han had “betrayed” Kaohsiung by pursuing his presidential ambitions over governing the city.

“We never would have thought that someone who was elected for a few months would just run off,” he said. “Yes, we voted in someone like Han, but why are the polls where they are now? It is a self-healing process, democracy can heal itself. Once you realise someone is not very reasonable, and your democracy is at a sufficient degree, it will heal itself.”

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