SPECIAL REPORT

Taiwan votes 2016: Parties vie for spotlight

Celebrities, cabbages and dishwashing sponges among gimmicks trotted out

In 1999, a young Taiwanese won Singapore's Star Search contest, later making a name for himself as an eloquent variety show host.

Last Friday night, Jeff Wang lent some of his stardust to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative candidate Chang Hung Lu in New Taipei city, singing and bantering with residents outside a sports stadium in the Banqiao district.

Wang, who left Singapore in 2009 for Taiwan, where he has since shone in various soap operas, tells The Straits Times he and fellow television artistes are being engaged by political parties this election season to woo would-be voters to the rallies.

 

Before this DPP gig, he had performed at another - for its rival, Kuomintang (KMT).

"It's like getai. We are not affiliated to any political parties but are invited to perform," he explains. "For us, it's a way to meet and thank our fans, the uncles and aunties."

Such "election concerts", where Taiwanese actors from popular soap operas sing and dance are a snazzy new element in these polls.


A DPP supporter donating a piggy bank full of coins at a party fund-raiser in Taipei on Dec 20. About 1,000 supporters gathered at the fund-raiser for the main opposition party. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Given that there has always been an element of entertainment in Taiwan politics, what is perhaps more surprising is how long it has taken for this tactic to materialise.

The vibrant, raucous democracy has toned down on its infamous fist fights in Parliament. But there remain no holds barred on how political parties and politicians are reaching out to the voters - from using dramatised skits to giving out heads of cabbage.

With Taiwan holding its presidential and legislative races simultaneously for the first time, a total of 559 candidates and their entourages are criss-crossing the island.

The DPP - which hopes to seize control of the Parliament on top of winning the presidency - is campaigning on the need for change after eight years of unpopular KMT rule, while the latter is positioning itself as the best protector of stability in Taiwan, especially with regard to its relations with China.

It is not just the mainstream parties that are vying for attention. This election has seen the rise of small parties championing various issues - from doing away with the Republic of China Constitution (Free Taiwan Party) to pigeon-racing (Peace Pigeon Union Party).

Some are hosting intimate townhall meets. To knowing chuckles, Mr Lo Chih-chen, a DPP candidate in New Taipei, asked a crowd of about 30 residents to raise their hands if they were fearful of being chucked away in nursing homes as he underscored the need for more to be done for an ageing society.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mega events for the presidential candidates.

On Saturday, hip-hop music reverberated around the historic Liberty Square in Taipei as 150,000 KMT supporters - including many elderly backers brought in by bus - cheered the arrival of President Ma Ying-jeou and candidate Eric Chu. There was sex appeal too: Nubile dancers in hot pants and off-shoulder T-shirts printed with the party flag completed the political fantasy.

The south also showed that it could throw a good party, with the DPP holding massive rallies in its strongholds of Kaohsiung and Tainan over the weekend. With ecstatic fans, elaborate stage lighting timed to high-octane music and drumbeats that swelled with the frequent cheers of "Jiayou! Jiayou!" ("Give it your all!"), it was a sleek gig worthy of any A-lister.

GIGS IN POLITICS

It's like getai. We are not affiliated to any political parties but are invited to perform... For us, it's a way to meet and thank our fans, the uncles and aunties.

JEFF WANG, 1999's Star Search winner who returned to Taiwan, on being hired by parties to entertain would-be voters.

And Ms Tsai Ing-wen is one. The DPP chairman is on track to win the presidential race on Saturday and become Taiwan's first woman leader.

Still, it does not hurt to seek support from the heavens.

Despite Taiwan's outward modernity, traditional culture remains important. Whatever the candidates' personal beliefs, a trip to a temple is mandatory.

Ms Tsai kicked off a round of campaigning in Tainan city by visiting the Kaitai Tianhou Temple in Anping district, while Mr James Soong of the People First Party visited the Chingshui Zushi Temple in New Taipei, where he swore before the deity that he would "find hope to return to all Taiwanese if elected president".

In the past, agricultural symbols were also key in appealing to grassroots and countryside voters. During previous campaigns, turnips, pineapples and garlic emerged as powerful emblems of politicians' connectedness with the lao bai xin (ordinary folk).

Garlic, in particular, was particularly pungent as a symbol. In Taiwanese, the word "garlic" sounds similar to "get elected" (dongsuan).

This time, cabbages are rolled out to make a point: to support local farmers and oppose the opening up of the market to Chinese producers as vegetable prices plunge.

The pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, a DPP ally, prepared an impressive mini-mountain of cabbages for supporters at a dinner on Saturday. When approached, a campaign worker urged the Straits Times to buy one: "Just NT$10 (43 Singapore cents) each."

Other campaign memorabilia come free. And they are not just the usual pens or calendars. Instead, they are tailored to the candidate's message or the demographic group of the voters.

Pressing flesh at a market in the northern port city of Keelung over the weekend, Mr Hau Lung-bin, a KMT legislative candidate, distributed dishwashing sponges to housewives. Others have given out items ranging from heat packs (temperatures here dipped this week) to condoms (to promote safe sex).

With new parties come new ideas. The year-old New Power Party, co-founded by ponytailed rocker Freddy Lim with the platform of social progressiveness, has savvily engaged the tools in its arsenal.

At its rally, attended by mainly Taiwanese aged below 30, a sign interpreter conveys the speeches. An emotional skit narrates the story of Taiwan's history as the party sees it, positioning the KMT forces that came to Taiwan after World War II as among the island's colonial masters.

Mud-slinging by both sides is par for the course, too.

Mr Lim's rival, KMT legislative candidate Lin Yu-fang, 64, called on voters not to support someone who has "hair that is longer than a woman's and is mentally abnormal". He later clarified that he was referring to Mr Lim's previous criticism of a prosecutor who had called sexual predator Justin Lee "childish and perverted".

In response, Mr Lim called on Taiwanese to marginalise a "dinosaur party whose representatives consider a man with long hair to be mentally abnormal".

  • With additional reporting by Jermyn Chow in Kaohsiung

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Election campaigning, Taiwan-style.
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan's parties vie for spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe