During elections in Taiwan it seems like maybe one-third of all available advertising space is given over to politics, with skyscrapers hung with billboards several stories tall, public buses covered with ads, and campaign banners as far as the eye can see.
Candidates ride around on jeeps, followed by loudspeaker trucks. Election trucks drive around, blaring political slogans, sometimes featuring drum accompaniments that make them sound almost like a temple festival.
Whether you’re standing around waiting for the garbage truck to come, eating in the night market, or praying at a temple, campaign staff come up and offer you campaign-themed tissues. I’ve also received campaign-branded face masks, garbage bags, toothpicks, bananas, instant coffee, and fans.
In the years since the Sunflower Movement in 2014, a number of activists have run for office as a way of continuing to push for the demands of the movement. Some formed new political parties. These left-wing, youth-oriented parties are referred to as the “Third Force,” the major three at present being the New Power Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Radical Party.
As a former student activist during the Sunflower Movement, I had a number of friends who ran for office this time. So, every day during elections, there was a good chance I might be woken up in the afternoon (I’m a night owl) by the voice of someone I knew, because their loudspeaker truck was passing by. I’d find myself riding a bus with a friend’s giant face on the side of it; a disconcerting feeling. I’d guess that if one in five buses in Taipei had an election ad on it, one in twenty had the face of someone I personally knew on it.
I interviewed over a dozen candidates in the course of my work as a political journalist, and translated the results into English, biting off way more than I could chew. The process dragged on for two months and was finished only one week before election day. My deadlines were chasing me everywhere I went in Taipei. A constant sense of doom hung over me in the months and weeks before the election.
These elections would determine city councilors, county magistrates, and mayors. In as densely packed a country as Taiwan, even city councilor is a position of surprising importance. This is why Third Force parties ran a large number of candidates for city councilor this year–around 100 candidates for 400 positions.
An unimaginable amount of money goes into just city councilor elections. A campaign billboard is on average 30,000 NT, which is around 1,000 USD, and a bit higher than the average monthly salary for a young person in Taiwan. A well-funded candidate from one of the major parties, the center-left and pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the far-right and pro-China Kuomintang—the former authoritarian party during Taiwan’s one-party period—might have dozens of billboards in a single district, at a cost of several million NTD, or hundreds of thousands, on one single election.
A city councilor only makes around 4,500,000 NT in the course of a four-year term, but could easily spend more than that on one election. It is very easy for city councilors to turn towards forms of political corruption to make up the shortfall.
It’s also clear that the enormous expense of running campaigns favors the wealthy, or those from political families. For example, one of the Kuomintang candidates in the district I live in, Geng Wei, at 27, is the same age as me. It seemed a bit obscene to me to see her giant multi-story billboards on the sides of skyscrapers when I have spent the last few years living in a series of tiny boxes in the same district, some windowless. Probably a single one of these billboards costs in a month what I pay for rent in a half a year. But then, Geng is a second-generation Kuomintang politician.
Ten national referenda were held simultaneously with local elections, voting on issues such as the legalization of gay marriage, and the gradual phasing out of nuclear energy. The referendum on gay marriage has probably received the most attention internationally, as it would have made Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage. Based on political polling, it had been thought that the majority of Taiwanese supported gay marriage.
However, anti-gay Christian groups have made powerful political inroads in recent years, aided by funding from wealthy American evangelical groups. Such groups are said to have poured millions of American dollars into advertising here, which strikes me as almost unbelievable.
But I can imagine that if the rest of the world celebrated Taiwan as being on the verge of legalizing gay marriage, right-wing evangelical groups may have seen it as the first country in Asia on the verge of falling to Satan. It got quite heated, with pro-gay marriage rallies called on short notice drawing over 100,000 people.
The synthesis of art and politics is a hallmark of the Sunflower Movement. Artists, filmmakers, and musicians took part, lending their skills to the twenty-three-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature.
In subsequent years many of them entered into politics directly through the “Third Force” parties. A striking example is New Power Party leader Freddy Lim, the frontman of the death metal band Chthonic.
Lim is now serving in the same legislature that we broke into and occupied in 2014. The aforementioned concert for marriage equality ended with a performance by Lim and Chthonic, singing about death and destruction in order to advocate for equality and inclusion, which I suppose will only freak the right-wing Christian groups out even further.
The Kuomintang and other political forces attempted to get in on the game this time, with Kuomintang candidates releasing cringeworthy hip-hop videos to try and appeal to young people. The Kuomintang takes the view that the DPP’s political victories in 2016 were due to the support of young people.
Taiwanese politics has grown surreal since 2014, with fringe candidates in a lot of mayoral races. Mark Lin, who ran for mayor of Tainan, hoped to win young people over with a campaign promise of “Crazy Fridays,” on which he’d throw parties, and invite international DJs to play; he became a viral sensation.
Wu E-Yang, who ran to become mayor of Taipei, spent most of the mayoral debate discussing the health benefits of honey lemonade, and expressing far-right wing political viewpoints. He also suggested that Taiwan could win over diplomatic allies with gifts of pineapple cake, thereby convincing them to defend Taiwan from military threats from China. If China attacked, he reasoned, the world would be without pineapple cake, and who would want that?
As his closing comment for the debate, Wu chose to sing a rendition of the Lynn Lee song, “The Bold and the Beautiful”, unexpectedly revealing a beautiful singing voice. The lyrics, which are about drinking to forget worldly sorrows, seemed strangely fitting for the times. This inspired numerous memes and spin-offs, including versions with piano accompaniment, acapella, a full band, heavy metal, Ableton, experimental sound art, and even a parody of Detective Pikachu in Taiwanese. Wu got around 5,000 votes, almost enough to sway the course of what turned out to be an extremely close mayoral election in Taipei.
Taichung mayoral candidate Sung Yuan-tung claimed responsibility for everything from engineering the election victory of Donald Trump, to personally conducting the assassination of Osama bin Laden. With such achievements under his belt, he claimed, solving the local issues faced by Taichung would be easy. He closed the debate with the memorable claim, “People call me crazy, but they never call me a liar!”
A Chiayi mayoral candidate participated in the debate under the name “Huang Hong-cheng, Taiwan’s Great God of Wealth President.” He dressed as Caishen, the Chinese god of wealth, spoke in the manner of a night market hawker, and, at one point, broke out into a rendition of the “The Bold and the Beautiful” in imitation of Wu. Later, he abruptly switched to mimicking an American-style preacher in English seemingly to comment on the funding of anti-gay groups by American evangelicals.
The election deposit needed to run for mayor is 2,000,000 NTD; each of these candidates paid about $65,000 US to do this on live television.
But the results were, well, a bloodbath.
Gay marriage was voted down and the Kuomintang massively defeated the DPP. It seems that the forces of reaction are alive and well in Taiwan. In the end, the gay marriage referendum and other referendums pushed for by progressive groups were voted down, and the KMT won 15 counties and cities, while the DPP only won 6 counties and cities, when it had maintained 13 in 2016.
It appears that the DPP had sort of expected to walk in and handily win elections in the face of the weakened KMT. So it thought it could run older, establishment candidates and they would get in easily. Overconfidence, then. My other main political referent outside of Taiwan being America, I was painfully reminded of the defeat of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump in the United States.
A candidate who had inspired comparisons to Trump, Han Kuo-yu, won handily in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s major southern city. Han was a former legislator and head of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation, an partially state-owned enterprise formerly used by the Kuomintang as a means to enforce its political control over Taiwanese farmers. In the early 2000s, he had once physically attacked Chen Shui-Bian–later the first non-Kuomintang president in Taiwanese history, but at that point the mayor of Taipei, and sent him to hospital.
Han’s frank, unorthodox manner, even including open misogyny and homophobia, outlandish campaign promises and frequent gaffes, came to be perceived as something fresh and new in Taiwanese politics. He claimed that the solution to Kaohsiung’s sluggish economy was the development of the South China Seas islands; never mind that these are disputed territory between Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries. In order to explain away poor debate performances, he claimed lack of sleep and an allergic reaction to stage make-up; the television station later denied this.
Han has become incredibly popular, with Kuomintang candidates all over Taiwan clamoring to appear in ads with him. If the Kuomintang has been scrambling for a new face for the party—one that can appeal to young people—they may have finally hit on someone with Han.
People like him! They say that they feel they can relate to him as someone who seems like an ordinary person and not an elite. And somehow, the effect of the “Han wave” was wide enough that this improved the standing of many Kuomintang politicians, simply through affiliation with Han and his strongman promises to singlehandedly take care of all of Taiwan’s problems.
But people were clearly unhappy with the DPP and their failure to improve the economy. Another major factor may have been anger at the DPP’s undoing thirty years of labor reforms at the behest of Taiwanese big business. But the Kuomintang would have probably done the same. It is more dangerous than the DPP because it actively seeks the political unification of Taiwan and China, though this would mean the absolute loss of Taiwan’s hard-won democratic freedoms. Yet the DPP or any other party cannot win by solely pointing towards the menace of China now.
The memory of the people can be frighteningly short. 500,000 people took to the streets of Taipei four years ago because of concern that the Kuomintang were selling out Taiwan’s political freedoms to China, but I recently read a poll claiming that the majority of Taiwanese now view Xi Jinping in a positive light.
Gay marriage was voted down overwhelmingly. Not only did the referendum pass the 25% participation needed to be legally binding, it was voted down two to one. Out of around 10 million who voted, seven million voted against gay marriage.
The pendulum effect, maybe. Romantic notions about the people always being in the right aside, sometimes the general populace can be quite bigoted. And in post-authoritarian political contexts like that in Taiwan, there can be nostalgia for authoritarianism as simpler, more orderly times, particularly when the economy is doing poorly.
As a leftist, these are issues that I have long thought about. But I wasn’t too surprised that thegay referendum was voted down. As a reporter, I’d often seen that the so-calledprogressive values and tolerance of Taiwanese society seemed to end when itcame to minorities. There have been many cases in recent years in whichSoutheast Asian migrant workers were treated like slaves, and forced to workaround the clock with no breaks. Whenever I report on a protest, I always alsosee the highest ratios of police to protesters for protests involving Taiwaneseindigenous people, probably out of a racialized fear that Taiwanese indigenous people aremore dangerous than their Han counterparts, which stems from cultural stereotypesof indigenous as barbaric and wild.
Anti-gay groups were successful in leveraging similar fears of difference, outlandishly claiming for example that if Taiwan legalized gay marriage, gays suffering from AIDS the world over would flock to Taiwan and bankrupt Taiwan’s national health insurance (though non-Taiwanese citizens would not have national health insurance). Despite their ridiculousness, some believed those fears and hence were willing to vote to take away the rights of a minority.
I was more surprised that that people who’d been so afraid of the loss of hard-earned democratic freedoms only four years ago were now happy to vote the Kuomintang back into power.
It is appalling to me, for example, that Hou You-yi, a former Kuomintang police official, is retaking power as the mayor of New Taipei, Taiwan’s most populous special municipality. Hou is the man literally responsible as for the death of Taiwan’s so-called father of free speech, “Nylon” Deng Nan-Jung. Too many people responsible for crimes during the authoritarian era not only never suffered any legal consequences, but continue to be figures in public life in Taiwan.
In a democracy, it is an unfortunate fact that many people may not have consistent political convictions, the way I or other activists might. Plenty of people may have genuinely voted, not on the basis of policy, but simply for whoever handed them nicer tissues while they were waiting for the garbage truck.
Whenever a Kuomintang candidate hands me a pack of tissues, I feel like tearing them apart and dispersing them in the air while shrieking the Sunflower Movement slogan, “If the Kuomintang will not collapse, Taiwan has no future!” (國民黨不倒，台灣不會好！). But I am in the minority. Many are just happy to be given free things, and that’s something the Kuomintang has understood very well.
I was very busy during the elections. After getting off the radio at around 10 PM, I drifted to an election-watching event organized by the activist Aman Wu—perhaps best known for the labor protest he once organized, consisting of three hours of satirical Buddhist chanting—at the activist bookstore and publisher, The Libratory. I knew I would find friends there. It seemed like a good place to watch the unfolding carnage.
I quietly plunked myself in a corner and wrote my report on the results until 1 or 2 AM. My friends around me got drunk, while I didn’t touch a single drop of alcohol, and I spoke to barely anyone. At one point, someone we knew who was passing by the bookstore walked in, asked to use the bathroom, and then started sobbing when they saw the television results.
It was a cold night, despite how warm it had been just a few weeks before. For it to be so warm in November was a sign of the end, I’d thought then. Global warming. Extinction. Now it was cold again, but that didn’t change the sense of desolation. I walked around the streets of Taipei, lost. There were still people around in the night, but all I could think about was that given the results of the gay marriage referendum, probably seven out of ten of these people was a bigot.
But in truth, I’m not that dispirited. For one thing, the fact that I am already a misanthrope, despite spending a lot of energy invested in social activism and other things for the betterment of humanity, keeps me from being too disappointed when society fails me. And the one silver lining of the night was that the New Power Party, the largest of the Third Force parties, managed to get 16 seats in the city council in spite of the fact that experts had dismissed the party’s expansive political ambitions out of hand.
On bad days I think about how the sun will eventually explode and wipe us out anyway, no matter what the political foibles of humanity may be. We could try to be nicer to each other in the time until then, but it’s just to our detriment that very often, we aren’t.
The Taiwanese anarchist theorist Wu Rwei-ren once told me that Taiwanese society in the past ten years seems to have alternated between periods full of hope, and full of despair. I guess we are in one of those low periods again. And the shifts occur without warning.
There are fourteen months until the next set of elections, which will be for the legislature and presidency. I guess I’ll be quite busy until then. There will be time to sleep when I’m dead.
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