Two Key Elections Today Offer a Glimpse At Both the Past and Future of Taiwanese Politics
Plus, a Buddhist pilgrimmage site showcases faith traditions in Taiwan, one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world
Happy new year, readers and friends! We hope this finds you safe with loved ones. If you’re in Taiwan, please reach out. Here’s hoping for an end to the pandemic this year.
In this week’s issue we talk about two key elections that took place in Taiwan. And we share some colorful photos from a trip to Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist pilgrimmage site in Kaohsiung, a southern city of Taiwan.
Attend a dinner party with Taiwanese people over a certain age—say, sixty—and you can expect a favorite genre of conversation: tales of vote-buying and rigged elections.
At a recent gathering, one elder related the tale of how in the 1970s, everybody knew that on Election Day, you could expect the electricity to go out. That was when the local authorities would finish “counting” the votes. Soon after, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate would emerge victorious. In 1977, he and his college classmates went to monitor the Tainan mayoral election by bringing flashlights. When the electricity went out, they literally shone their lights onto officials and watched them count the votes. That election would be one of the first wins for a non-KMT, dangwai candidate, Su Nan-cheng.
People at the dinner table soon began swapping stories—tales of how much each vote used to cost, strategies that “vote-brokers” (樁脚 or 柱仔脚 t‘iau-a`-k‘a) used to ensure that people who took money would cast their ballots. One person said that he knew for a fact that the going rate for one vote right now is 2000 NTD (about 75 USD). Yet another person at the table seemed shocked, outraged: are Taiwanese that easily bought? The response: This may not sound like a lot of money for you urban fat cats, but for a family of five in rural areas, that can add up to at least a month’s living expenses.
Then people brought up Chen Po-wei, who lost a recall election in late October. (Chen, as we’ve written in a past post, questioned the Defense Minister in Taiwanese, sparking intense public debate over Taiwan’s multilingual future.) They claimed that the Yen family, who had initiated the recall, had bought votes and spent more than 150 million Taiwan dollars (roughly 5 million USD).
For everybody at the table, the moral of these stories was clear: Taiwan’s transition to democracy has been recent and is therefore fragile. Old-school political interests remain fiercely embedded, and dismantling them requires persistence and vigilance.
Voters in two legislative districts went to the polls today. In Taipei, voters decided not to recall the heavy metal rocker-turned-politician, Freddy Lim. In Taichung, voters elected Lin Ching-yi as the replacement for the aforementiomed Chen Po-wei. Lin defeated Yen Kuan-heng, the son of the notorious lawmaker Yen Ching-piao, who has held power for a long time through clientelism and factional politics.
Both local elections have galvanized the nation because they offer a glimpse of both the past and the future of Taiwanese politics. With his unconventional background, Freddy Lim has long represented a breath of fresh air in the Taiwanese landscape. More importantly, his recall indicates that there are possible spaces, if tenuous, for smaller parties and independents in Taiwanese elections. Nonetheless, he needed to rely on support from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to survive.
The Taichung case represents the latest assault on traditional Taiwanese political patronage factions and clientelism. As usual, Nathan Batto at Frozen Garlic has the best electoral analysis, and he shows that in both districts, the tight races in the lead-up to the election date was connected to broader demographic and social changes. These contests reflect new migration patterns, urbanization, and development, all stories that have national purchase.
As Courtney Donovan Smith has pointed out, what has been most surprising for long-time observers is the open public discussion of Yen family corruption. Although the family’s illegal dealings have long been an open secret, until now the media and police went easy on them, fearing reprisal. The Yen patriarch, Yen Ching-piao, has powerful ties to organized crime. But recently, as Smith writes, “a dam has broken.” The past three weeks have seen extensive coverage on allegations of corrupt Yen family practice, ranging from gun-running to vote buying to tax fraud. One popular Cliffs Notes version of the Yen family controversies lists twenty-two cases of ongoing disputes. The best analogy we can think of is the sudden deluge of reporting on Trump Inc. midway through his term, when it seemed as if there were daily reports of solid investigative reporting into the Trump family’s shady dealings.
But how do politicians go about buying votes? How do they ensure that if they pay for a vote, they actually get the vote? In Taiwan, ballots show the picture and the name of the candidate; a vote counts as valid if you stamp your seal on the candidate’s picture. You can stamp as many times or in whatever way you want. The picture below shows how you can cast your ballot; all four are considered valid.
As a couple in Taichung told us, the “vote broker” for the corrupt politician instructs the person to stamp his or her seal on an exact location on the candidate’s face—on the right eye, for instance, or right under the nose. In Taiwan, ballot counting commences immediately, and each ballot is opened and elevated high into the air (see photos below) so that observers and party affiliates can inspect the votes. But this also means that brokers can see whether the paid voter has obeyed instructions.
Vote brokers are often important and embedded figures in the community, and they have multiple ways to coerce voters. Your granddaughter needs a spot in the public daycare? There’s a pothole in front of your house? Well, you better vote in the next election. Besides traditional methods—thuggery and force—these reflect the more typical and inventive methods to enforcing compliance. Brokers get a cut of money if they deliver on the votes. Likewise, they have to pay up if they fail.
Lin’s victory represents a major blow for the Yen family style of political clientelism. Most shockingly, she’s an outsider who won in his home base. The Yen family had played the “carpetbagger” card in the lead-up to the election, claiming that the DPP had air-lifted her into the district. But these allegations, while basically true, failed to prevent defeat. Today’s elections are a huge victory for the DPP. Meanwhile, the KMT is in disarray, and pundits are already talking about how they have negative “momentum” for the next major elections in November.
Of course, we’d be foolish to pin too much on two elections—it’s too early to tell whether they will represent a turning point in Taiwanese electoral politics or electoral culture. What does it mean that the colorful figures in the Taiwanese political space are changing from Yen-family style gangsters to rockers like Freddy Lim? Will a more transparent, democratic, and responsive form of politics emerge from these elections? Will stories of political corruption and intimidation remain just that—topics of fun dinner conversation rather than persistent aspects of democracy? Here’s hoping.
A Buddhist pilgrimmage site showcases the religious diversity of Taiwan
Taiwan has long been one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. In a 2014 Pew survey, it ranked as the second most diverse country in terms of religion, just behind Singapore. (The Vatican came in last.) Most people practice some form of folk religion—a combination of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian elements, with local folk elements mixed in. All of the major world religions have a foothold in the country. Even more rare is the density of religious sites in Taiwan. Official statistics count more than 33,000 religious buildings inhabiting the 36,000 square kilometers on the island, and that is an undercount, as many religious sites are not officially registered with the state.
The religious diversity and density were on display at the event “When Buddha Meets the Gods,” held every year on December 25th at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum. Founded in 1967 by the Buddhist monk Hsing Yun, Fo Guang Shan is one of the four major Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, and the monastery is known for its 36-meter high statue of Amitābha Buddha.
Michelle had the good fortune to observe the event with a group of scholars from the Graduate Institute of Religious Studies at National Chengchi University. (Students interested in studying religion in Taiwan, please consider applying to work with the fantastic faculty there!) We’re still thinking through the event, but consider this a photographic preview for a longer piece in the future.
The deities parade through the main gate. Some came as giants, or “generals” in the folk religion.
Others were carried by their devotees in palanquins. This temple from Feng Yuan is the oldest city god temple in Taichung and is famous for its transportable Japanese-era mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine.
Each of the deities who arrived received a blessing and a medal from the main abbott of Fo Guang Shan, the Most Venerable Hsin Bao. Here’s a closeup of the medals:
After receiving their medals, the deities line up in formation.
The atmosphere was raucous and festive. Dancers performed and there was constant music.
Michelle got to talk to a charismatic Singaporean Buddhist nun, daughter of a cabdriver and homemaker, who renounced at age 23 and showed Michelle how to say a prayer.
Among Michelle’s favorite discoveries was the meditative tea society. The young people pictured here poured tea for pilgrims. They’d taken classes from Buddhist monks, where they learned how to meditate while making tea. They close their eyes while waiting for tea leaves to steep in water.
The children explained that the practice of making and pouring tea had taught them how to calm themselves, as well as take joy in serving others.
Book Club: The Brothers Karamazov, Friday, January 28th, 7 PM EST
Well, Dostoevsky certainly seems to stir up strong feelings—people love him or really, really hate him, but nobody’s neutral. So much the better! We’ve decided to make a push to read the first half of The Brothers Karamazov by January 28 and the second half by the end February, so that the pooh-poohers can return to the book club in March.