Experiencing the Taiwanese Campaign Rally

This is the second Taiwan Presidential election I have had the pleasure to observe on site. In 2008 I spend more than two weeks on the road and managed to watch rallies and election related events in Pingtung, Kaohisung, Tainan, Changhua, Taichung, Taoyuan and Taipei. This time my trip was shorter and the election observation already began with a disappointment. The flight from Hong Kong was delayed so I missed all the great action on Super Sunday. Unfortunately Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT did not plan any large scale events such as election rallies in the last week of the campaign until the night before the election. So I decided to follow Tsai Ing-wen from the DPP to Southern and Central Taiwan.

I have to point out that what I present here is purely anecdotal evidence. Yet as many contributors to this blog have already pointed out, the election campaign started very late to get into full swing and there is a significant decrease of printed campaign advertisements and campaign literature. Thus on-site observations of campaign rallies contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of this year’s election campaign.

I attended the central rallies of the DPP in Kaohsiung on Wednesday night and in Taichung on Thursday night. I can only comment on the atmosphere and the speech given by Tsai Ing-wen in Kaohsiung. Ninety percent of speeches were made in Taiyu which I unfortunately do not understand and thus relied on very brief summaries from fellow attendants. In Taichung the situation for Mandarin speakers was slightly better. In Kaohsiung the rally began with representatives of agricultural and fishery bodies endorsing Tsai Ing-wen and proceeded with a first introduction of the Legislative Yuan candidates for Greater Kaohsiung. The Legislative Yuan candidates were introduced at the beginning in Taichung as well each giving short speeches. In Taichung the focus was on representatives from the cultural sector, particularly individuals with important positions in the music scene came out to voice their support for Tsai. Their addresses appeared to be bit long and many in the audience began to talk among themselves while a music professor went on about the positive attributes of Tsai.

The second stage in the rally was as music performance which catered more to the young participants. In Kaoshiung and Taichung the crowds appeared to be very satisfied with the two hip hop acts. In Taichung the satisfaction of the attendants was even greater as the performers incorporated a classic ‘graduation song’ into one of their pieces which the crown happily sung along.

Another round of endorsements brought party heavy weights like Hsieh Chang-ting and Chen Chu in Kaohsiung and Yu Shyi-kun and Su Tseng-chang to the stage. The crowds cheered them enthusiastically: this was particularly the case with Su Tseng-chang who seemed to be very pleased by the response. He played with the audience and swung between Mandarin and Taiyu in his address. An interesting novel element was the string focus on successful women from different sectors such as business and education who gave endorsements to Tsai, highlighting that Taiwanese women have proven their leadership qualities in various key positions. The endorsement section concluded at a high with the appearances of Vice-presidential candidate Su Jia-chyuan who forcefully addressed the audience in Taiyu. In Taichung this was preluded by the appearance of Nobel Laureate Lee Yuan-tse and a large group of intellectuals and university professors supporting Tsai. When Lee entered the stage the crowd went mad.

The third act of the rally was a slower musical number in anticipation of Tsai’s arrival. The musical acts were well-known Taiwanese singers which connected very well with the audience. In Taichung two classic Taiyu songs frequently employed by the DPP such as 伊是咱的寶貝 were performed and the audience went to sing them along for the entire time.

Then finally Tsai arrived, slowly forcing her way through the masses, greeting everyone and shaking hands. People went crazy. Yet in Kaohsiung, once she was near the stage many people began to leave. The exodus from the ground continued when she began to speak. Asking people why they left, most answered that they have seen enough and the event would be over soon anyway. Certainly many people wanted to avoid the usual traffic chaos after mass rallies, but the reaction from the crowd during Tsai’s speech was also significantly less enthusiastic compared to the appearances of Hsieh, Chen or Su. One important reason might be that she was speaking mostly in Mandarin and is less of a campaign performer. In Taichung it appeared that significantly less people left the site.

In her short speech Tsai Ing-wen focused on the importance of democracy for Taiwan and linked it to the Kaohsiung Incident. In Taichung she mentioned local issues such as transportation and  stressed the importance to come out to vote, as in the Greater Taichung mayoral election the DPP missed a victory just by a little bit. She also stressed the importance of democracy with regard to cross-strait relations. She answered the KMT claim with her as President cross-strait relations would suffer and less mainland tourists would come to Taiwan, by stating that without democracy Taiwan would be not unique and mainland tourists would not find Taiwan interesting. The reaction of the crowd in Kaohsiung to this line of argument was less enthusiastic than in Taichung. Tsai proceeded to criticise the government for its unfair economic policies and stated that happiness means first and foremost a stable job, a home to return to and a warm meal. Shortly after her speech the rallies concluded.

In comparison the participants in the south appeared to be a bit less enthusiastic about Tsai as a candidate but strongly committed to the DPP as a party. It is also important to note that it seemed to be a larger proportion of young and middle age people attending the rallies than in 2008. Both observations support the perception that Tsai might be able to attract support beyond the hard core basis of the party who would come out for the DPP no matter what.

Finally a short remark to last night’s KMT rally with the memories still fresh and less organised. Basically the rundown of the rally was similar to those of the just described by the DPP and also the 2008 rallies. Again a mixture of musical numbers and performances by dance groups catering to the youth, the introduction of Legislative candidates and endorsements by key KMT politicians. Among these were in Taipei Eric Chu, Hau Lung-pin and Lien Chan. It was telling that a sick Lien Chan with an almost disappearing voice did give a more forceful performance than Hau. Hau praised Ma for his contributions to Taipei during his mayor-ship but went into tiny details about waste water management and other issues and how much the city has saved thanks to the visionary policies of Ma. The audience had to be constantly cheered up by the two hosts at the rally. Yet over-all the atmosphere was very good. The speeches in the rally were mostly given in Mandarin, but Chu and Legislative Yuan candidates spoke in Taiyu as well, constantly reminding the audience to come out to vote. An interesting element was the comparatively strong presence of the ROC national flag. This was key ingredient of the 2012 KMT campaign and it was highlighted by a hip hop dance performance with the ROC flag as central feature.

The turn-out was very impressive with the entire Kentagalan Boulevard and its adjacent streets packed with people from different age groups. One of the highlights of the rally was a video link in which Ma, who was in Taichung at the time, spoke to supporters in Kaohsiung and Taipei. He re-uttered his classic statement that he is strongly committed to Taiwan’s future and like all Taiwanese drinks Taiwan’s water and eats its rice. He criticised Tsai and her policies as not well thought through and immature. In his speech, as well in his address to the crowd in Taipei later, he frequently switched between Taiyu and Mandarin and  delivered a forceful and convincing performance. In my opinion his performance was better than in some rallies in 2008.

Overall the traditional campaign elements employed in rallies by DPP and KMT were dominant and the parties achieved their goal to mobilise large amounts of people and energised them before voting day.

Malte Kaeding is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey