campaign trail: NPP event in Taipei

Last weekend was the biggest weekend of the election cycle, so you can be sure that I tried to take in as much as possible. On Saturday, I went to the KMT’s rally at the CKS memorial after their march through Taipei City, took a glance at the TSU’s fund-raising dinner in front of the presidential building, and then went to the New Power Party’s evening rally next to the legislature. I’m going to write about the third event. It’s not that the KMT rally was unimportant, but it wasn’t that unusual and I just don’t have time to write about everything. The NPP event, on the other hand, was unique, to say the least. I had gone to a NPP rally for a district candidate the previous night and was struck by how much the campaign felt like a DPP campaign with NPP logos slapped on top. Well, this rally didn’t feel anything like a DPP rally. That one was for a local race, while this one was aimed nationally with a goal of winning party list votes. On Saturday night, there was some clear market differentiation.

The NPP’s choice to hold a rally on the street next to the legislature was no accident. The party emerged out of the sunflower protests, and this was an explicit attempt to recreate that energy. One of the most striking sights of the sunflower protests was the sea of students sitting peacefully in the streets for days on end. Whereas most rallies have a hundreds or thousands of plastic stools for attendees, the NPP asked participants to sit down in the street, just like the protesters had. Another core feature of the sunflower movement was the ocean of art. Students put up all kinds of banners and posters with a variety of slogans and pictures. They also sang a lot. A hastily organized survey of the students by a team of sociologists showed that law and social science students were heavily overrepresented, but the most overrepresented students were from a few smaller arts schools. The NPP rally echoed that artistic heritage. The street was filled with several massive plaster sculptures of people running forward. The backdrop on the main stage was a statue of a pregnant woman. Given Taiwan’s extremely low birthrate, this is not merely a statement that the NPP is a party of young people, it is also a symbol of one of Taiwan’s most pressing crises. In fact, the NPP crowd was dramatically younger than any other political event I’ve been to this year. It seemed as if the party leaders had given the young volunteers complete freedom to run this event. Among the party volunteers, there were only a few faces that looked over 30. The crowd was also young. I’d guess that the median age at most political rallies is about 65. At this event, the median age was probably under 30. This was a demographic slice that the KMT and DPP would love to be able to mobilize, but here they were at a NPP event.

Most rallies start by introducing the host, who gives a short, enthusiastic speech. This one started out with a play. The volunteers, who I assume were all students or were very recently students, put together a rendition of Don Quixote. It was a very apt choice, since they literally were tilting at windmills, first when they decided to challenge the legislature’s actions in March 2014 and now when they have the audacity to challenge the established two-party system. It was quite an intricate play with lots of props, including a metallic horse, a giant windmill, and two giant balloon squids. (I was distracted by other things when the squids appeared, so I’m not quite sure how they fit into the story.) Many rallies have singing or dancing performances, but I’ve never seen anything as elaborate or ambitious as this.

The Don Quixote performance wasn’t the only dramatic play of the night. About 45 minutes later, there was another play. This one was a play about the origins of the NPP. They had a legislature ramming a bill through, students showing up to protest, and police repression of the protesters, complete with the last one standing being shot, grasping at the air, and slowly collapsing. But they couldn’t be killed! The students slowly struggled to their feet and triumphantly organized a political party, putting on yellow and black t-shirts. Somewhere around the stylized shooting, my attitude toward the entire event started becoming increasingly cynical. In the actual sunflower protests, no one was shot and no one was killed. Taking liberties with that history for the sake of dramatic effect was too much for me to swallow. By the end of the play, with the good yellow and black clad students overwhelming the forces of evil, I was in full spin-defense mode. The whole play reminded me of the stories I used to read from the Chinese communist revolution, in which troupes of actors would try to teach illiterate peasants about class struggle by putting on simplistic morality plays of righteous peasants or workers rising up against evil landlords or capitalists.

The efforts at crowd control were also starting to wear on me after about an hour. During the sunflower movement, the protest organizers had very strict rules about how to use various sections of the street. Some places were for sitting, some places were kept open for aisles, and outsiders were shunted off to the sides. At this rally, the volunteers kept trying to treat us like sunflower protesters, insisting that we should sit down in the street. Well, an election rally is not like a student protest. I’m too old and inflexible to sit in the street for three hours. Three hours on a stool makes me sore; there was no way in hell I was going to trying sitting on the pavement. There were lots of older people (like me) standing in the rear, and the volunteers kept yelling at us to sit down so we could be more comfortable. They were simply oblivious to how older bodies work. There is a reason for the ubiquitous plastic red stool. Without one, we were forced to stand the whole time. (Ok, this isn’t entirely true. They set up about 30 stools on one side for older people. Apparently they thought that only a miniscule percentage of feeble old people couldn’t or wouldn’t want to sit on the street. Predictably, those stools were occupied before the rally even started. I think there might have been 30 people sitting on the 30 stools before there were 30 people sitting in the street.)

The big sculptures were also a problem. They were very beautiful, and to maximize their effect, they were placed in the middle of the street at regular intervals. Unfortunately, they also blocked any view of the stage. If you weren’t sitting on the pavement in the front, you simply couldn’t see what was going on. At regular rallies, they usually put the press corps photo platforms further back and slightly to the sides in order to preserve sightlines for the attendees. The NPP volunteers perhaps wanted to do things differently, but there are usually good reasons for the standard practices.

The speakers were surprisingly unenergetic. Hung Tsu-yung 洪慈庸, the candidate from Taichung 3, was one of the first politicians to take the stage. She and her mother talked about the death of her brother while in military service. It could have been emotional, but (a) we’ve all heard this story many times by now and (b) neither one is a particularly powerful speaker. Even with the sad piano music, my attention drifted elsewhere. The next politician was Chiu Hsien-chih 邱顯智, the candidate in Hsinchu City. He is the only one who is running against a DPP candidate, so he is the only one who is running a hopeless campaign. The sunflowers just don’t like the DPP legislator in Hsinchu, who will probably be the speaker if he wins the race. They think Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘 lacks idealism and is probably corrupt. Interestingly, Chiu let his wife do the dirty work of attacking Ker. When he spoke, he talked about why the KMT should lose. Neither one was very persuasive to me, and they weren’t very charismatic. Chiu has a mascot in a bear costume, and it seems appropriate (though almost certainly unintentional) to me that the bear has a sad expression on his face. Chiu’s campaign is saaad, and the bear is saaad.

We stood through a few more speakers, all of whom were surprisingly uncharismatic. The speakers made very little effort to engage the crowd, and the energy slowly drained away. It didn’t help that we were tired because we were standing or sitting on cold pavement. Several people in the back of the crowds starting drifting away. There was never a big crowd. My guess is that, at its maximum, there may have been 3000 people. However, people started leaving by about 8:00pm. I stayed until Hsu Yung-ming 徐永明 spoke. Hsu is a very good stump speaker, and I wanted to see if he could fire up the crowd. He was good, but it just wasn’t working. If he had come on stage two hours earlier, he would have had the crowd roaring. However, by 8:45, after over two hours of sitting and standing with very little engagement, he simply couldn’t revive the crowd. It was physically drained. I left around 9:00. By that time, most of the standing audience had already thrown in the towel and left. The younger people sitting in front were still there. Hooray for young and limber bodies! Incredibly, the event wasn’t even close to over. They didn’t finish until after 10:00pm, violating the official curfew.

Even though the logistics of this event were a disaster, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the event was a failure. The biggest problem was the overall attendance. The NPP clearly expected a much bigger turnout. They blocked off a long street and set up video boards in the rear half of the venue. However, no one was in that portion of the venue. The section near the main stage was filled with sitting people, and the next section between two sculptures was, at the peak of the rally, about half full with standing people. That was it. The rear 60% of the venue was almost entirely empty.

Attendance at rallies isn’t usually a very good indicator of a party’s vote share, but this lousy turnout set off alarm bells to me. I thought there would be a certain level of NPP sympathizers who would self-mobilize to show support for the party at its biggest campaign event. Instead, we got nothing. This suggests to me that the NPP doesn’t really have the core base of party supporters that most people assume it has. Instead, it is simply borrowing strength from the DPP. In the electoral districts, this is clearly true. However, I had thought that the NPP would have its own unique base in the national party list vote in addition to whatever support it could siphon away from DPP sympathizers. I’m beginning to think it does not. Instead, I’m starting to think that a Liberty Times column nailed it, by saying that NPP has positioned itself as a “mini-DPP” or as a faction of the DPP. By actively supporting Tsai and by having so many DPP figures campaign for the NPP in the districts, the NPP has cultivated sympathy from DPP supporters who, after years of fighting for representation, naturally support the underdog.

However, there is a real danger that the NPP peaked too early. The last media reports before the polling blackout suggested that the NPP was surging in popularity and could be well above the 5% threshold. This alarmed the DPP, which has made voting for the DPP party list one of its three main closing messages to voters. The DPP has even put out a rumor that the NPP is so far above the threshold that they could win more seats that they have candidates. Thus, a party list vote for the NPP might be a complete waste. If the NPP doesn’t have its own core base of supporters who won’t abandon it no matter what, it is entirely reliant on strategic votes from DPP sympathizers. These can surge in, or they can melt away entirely. In other words, what the terrible turnout told me was that my estimate for the NPP party list vote should have a very large error term. A few days ago, I was confident the NPP would pass the 5% threshold. Now, I think it as likely to get 2.5% or 12.5% as it is to get 5.5%.

 

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Here is the main statue, of a pregnant woman. They were projecting images onto her belly. I was trying to get a photo of the character “power” 力 on her belly, but it didn’t work too well.

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This photo was taken at about 6:00pm, and the rally didn’t start until 6:30. The space in front of and next to the sculpture of the girl was eventually filled by sitters.

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Two other sculptures. Even at the peak of the rally, the space in this picture was most empty.

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These towers lined the sides. They were used as speaker towers, and the ones in the back had (unused) video boards. They also had wires supporting the sculptures attached to the towers. Each tower had the name of a candidate and a slogan or something about that candidate’s expertise. This one has the name of Hsu Yung-ming who is on the party list, and it says, “the people’s legislature.”

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These guys got there early to grab the best seats. It turned out that they overestimated how much demand there would be for prime real estate.

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Look at how young their volunteers are. The other parties would kill to have so many passionate volunteers. Heck, the KMT would probably be happy to put one or two of them on the party list!

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I don’t know if this was supposed to have any meaning or just be extremely cool. I can only confirm that it was awesome.

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Don Quixote attacking the windmill. It was at about this point that the crowd got big enough that we were pushed back behind the first sculpture and thus out of decent sightlines. I gave up on taking pictures of events on the stage shortly after this.

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The sad, saaad bear. Being the third candidate in a three-way race is no fun at all.

4 Responses to “campaign trail: NPP event in Taipei”

  1. R Says:

    rilakkuma!

    Thanks for the detailed report. Just out of curiosity, have you happened to visit any SDP/Green rallies? Relative to the NPP, I have much more interest in the SDP, in the way they tried to keep a distance from the DPP & with hope that in the near future they can displace the KMT & become the main opposition to the left of the DPP, something that I can’t see the NPP doing.

  2. schneggi Says:

    You should have attended the Chthonic concert on 26 December. That was a memorable rally…

  3. oxen88 Says:

    Did you make it to this rally? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNHAeGULEHk&feature=youtu.be&a

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