Campaign Trail: TPP rally in Taichung

On Saturday of the Golden Weekend, I drove down to Taichung to see the Taiwan People’s Party in action. Ke Wen-je’s new party is only putting on three big events this campaign, two on the Golden Weekend and one on Election Eve, so I wasn’t going to have many other chances to hear what they have to say. Since the Ko-P Party is widely expected to pass the 5% threshold and get a few party list seats, I wanted to hear if they had any sort of coherent theme. To cut to the conclusion: they don’t. This party is intellectually vacuous. The legislative candidates do not have particularly impressive qualifications, do not exude an air of competence, and are not very skilled at political communication. Ke Wen-je has a discourse, but the rest of the party doesn’t seem aware of it. They certainly do not echo or reinforce his talking points. The only common thread holding the party together is the idea of working hard, which they hardly have a monopoly on in Taiwanese politics. Beyond Ko, this simply isn’t a very impressive party.

The rally was in Beitun District, next to a big night market. There were a lot more people at the night market than at the rally. I estimate that around 2500-3000 people attended the rally. It was stunningly small, given the proximity of the night market, the fact that this was the TPP’s first major event, and the popularity of the TPP in polls. They clearly expected more people, as they had a long street reserved and only used about a third of the space. Also, at least 100 of the people in attendance were party workers. It might have been the highest ratio of workers to regular attendees that I have ever seen. Size aside, the other interesting thing about the crowd was its age. This crowd was a bit older than what you might see at a NPP event, but it was quite a bit younger than crowds at DPP or KMT events. The typical person was in the 35-50 age group, and there were lots of parents with small children in attendance.

I arrived just as Lai Hsiang-ling, the top person on the party list was finishing her speech. Since she is almost certainly going to get a seat in the legislature, I went back and listened to her on Youtube. She was, outside of Ko, the best speaker of the night, though that is a very low bar. Her main theme was that the TPP would bravely face the important questions. She listed a few of them, reiterated that the party would address them, but she never proposed any specific solutions. This would become a refrain throughout the night. Another speaker complained that both the KMT and DPP had failed to do anything about air quality and concluded that, it didn’t matter if you voted for blue or green, neither would make the air clean. That speaker pointedly did not propose any solution or even a general direction. This happened again and again. The speaker would complain about something, say that the two big parties weren’t doing anything about it, promise to work hard and sincerely, and never propose any ideas for what to do.

After Lai and a musical performance, the TPP’s three candidates in Taichung took turns speaking. One of them talked about working hard (“I visit ALL the traditional markets!”) and having small children, apparently unaware that almost all politicians campaign hard and have children. He was the best one. The worst one was running in Taichung 3, where the KMT has nominated a former legislator and current deputy mayor and the DPP is supporting incumbent Hung Tzu-yung, who dropped out of the NPP and is running for re-election as an independent. He started his speech by complaining how unfair it was that he was running against two very famous candidates, and he didn’t have enough resources to match their advertising budgets. Yes, telling the audience that your race is hopeless and they probably shouldn’t waste their votes on you seems like a wise strategy. He ended by saying that, if he got enough votes to qualify for public funding, he would donate the money to charity. Um, the purpose of the public funding system is to help smaller and poorer parties compete. You are supposed to take that money and pay off your campaign expenses or reinvest it in the party for the future. If you aren’t going to use the public money that has been set aside explicitly for party-building purposes to build your party, then [insert profanity here] don’t complain about how unfair it is that your opponents are more famous than you! In between those two very brilliant statements, he proposed two concrete policies. First, he wants to amend the constitution to ensure that a certain proportion of party list legislators are young (similar to how 50% must be female). I don’t think he has thought this through. Very few people under 30 have put together an impressive resume, so who does he think would get these seats? Perhaps he might do well to think about all the politicians in their 50s and 60s – at the height of their power and influence – who have (unremarkable) children in their 20s and 30s who they think highly of. Is it really a good idea to set up an affirmative action system for political dynasties?? Second, he wants to set up a new government bureaucracy to monitor pet dogs so that they do not become strays. Ok, dude. Thanks for addressing the tough issues. Stray dogs are definitely one of the top five problems facing Taiwan today, right after claw machines, confusing bus timetables, excessively sugary bubble tea drinks, and the lack of a 7-11 in my neighborhood.

After another musical performance, Tsai Pi-ju spoke. She is Ko’s most trusted administrative lieutenant, and she was the one who he charged with the responsibility of setting up this party. Since she is an important person in the Taipei city government, I expected she would be much more polished than the previous speakers. Nope. Tsai is an absolutely horrible public speaker. She can barely string together two sentences. Some people in the crowd started shouting encouragement, as if she were a shy schoolchild terrified of standing in front of a crowd. Except she wasn’t shy or eager to get off the stage; she kept going on and on. That might have been ok if she had anything substantial to say, but – you guessed it – she did not. Listening to her was a painful experience.

It might seem unfair of me to harp on poor public speaking, but communication is at the very core of democratic politics. Democracy is all about building consensus around certain ideas, and you do that mainly by talking. You have to identify and prioritize problems, call on (and shape) values, propose solutions, and reiterate and reinforce those ideas to the people who have already heard them. Tsai (and the rest of the TPP on stage Saturday night) failed this test.

 

Mayor Ko finally took the stage and injected some competence into the rally. Ko has a relatively coherent discourse, which goes roughly as follows:

It is pointless to talk about “ideology,” by which he means unification or independence. The United States will never allow Taiwan to either declare independence, because that might lead it into war with China, or to unify with China, because that would destroy the natural blockade formed by the first island chain. However, most of the population does not realize this, and the KMT and DPP have been able to win majorities by appealing to ideology. Since they can rely on ideology to deliver votes, the KMT and DPP do not have to take governing seriously. Instead, they are lazy in office, continually make bad choices, and produce bad outcomes, all while enjoying the spoils of power. Ko, in contrast, understands that ideology is irrelevant, and he has to govern effectively in order to appeal to the public. As a result, he is diligent and careful with his power and decisions. He sums this all with a pithy expression of his governing philosophy, “Do the right things; Don’t do the wrong things; and Do them diligently” 對的事情做,不對的事情不要做,認真做。 The two big parties repeatedly “Do the wrong things; Don’t do the right things; and They are lazy.”

In a previous post, I discussed Han Kuo-yu’s populist rhetoric. Ko’s rhetoric has many similar elements, but I don’t think Ko qualifies as a full-blown populist. Maybe we can label him as slightly “populish.”

Like Han, a central point of Ko’s discourse is that the elites have not worked for the best interests of the people. However, Ko’s attack is far less vitriolic. Han claims that the DPP is drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the common people in order to satisfy their own lust for power. The DPP elites are actively and intentionally harming the people. Ko, in contrast, suggests that the KMT and DPP elites are merely lazy. They are lulled into making bad decisions by the ease of winning elections through ideology. They are more inept than evil.

Also like Han, Ko suggests that governing is easy and that the correct policy choices are fairly obvious. There is no need to discuss exactly how to lower PMI 2.5 levels; the government should simply choose appropriate air quality policies and work hard to implement them. Ko simply sidesteps the entire nuclear vs wind debate (both of which use fossil fuels during the transition period) that the DPP and KMT are engaged in.

Ko presents politics in a moral frame. For him, diligence is the hallmark of morality. Working hard is the only consistent theme that the TPP communicates. They talked over and over about starting meetings at 7:30, as early starts guaranteed good results. Ko likes to repeat, 嗡嗡嗡, an onomatopoeia meaning something like work, work, work.

However, Ko’s discourse is missing the defining elements of populist rhetoric. He does not invoke the “real people” in a populist sense. He does not see the people as homogeneous; rather, he talks quite a bit about diversity and pluralism. He also does not define a general will on behalf of the real people. Ko says that administrative efficiency is the most important thing for effective government, but he doesn’t seem to think that the general public has, above all, a burning desire for administrative efficiency. This is more of an internal, technocratic instruction to his team: if you want to perform well in office, you have to have administrative efficiency.

 

Ko’s discourse might have a coherent internal logic, but it is, nonetheless, horribly flawed. Ko’s fundamental assumption – that Taiwan can’t and so shouldn’t do anything about its relationship with China – is clearly false. The United States has never issued a blank check to Taiwan; that relationship must be carefully managed and nurtured. More importantly, the relationship with China does not reduce simply to unification or independence. Taiwan has to make important decisions about day to day economic, cultural, and political interactions. Those decisions will have an enormous impact on how the relationship develops in future years and decades, and that relationship will in turn affect the choices around Taiwan’s future status. Ko simply doesn’t want to talk about how he would manage China policy. For now, the handful of TPP legislators might be able to sidestep this question, but if Ko runs for president in the future, this answer will not be sufficient. The TPP might also eventually have to face the problem that lots of politicians work hard; they do not have a monopoly on their central selling point. However, other than ignoring cross-strait relations and working hard, it is unclear what the TPP represents. In the end, maybe all they are left with is Ko Wen-je’s personal charisma.

 

This street was supposed to be full of TPP supporters. Oops.

Lots of TPP swag available. Ko’s supporters don’t buy quite as much as Han’s.

The TPP has invested heavily in these backpack balloons. They had at least 50 people wearing them. Who needs specific policies!

Now that I think about it, the balloons are my favorite thing about the TPP.

The two pillars on either side of the stage read, “push blue and green to the sides, put the people in the middle.”

Do you love your dog? I do too! Is that good enough?

All the party list nominees came on stage, and Tsai Pi-ju spoke for them. Maybe they should have chosen one of the others as the designated speaker.

I didn’t get any good pictures of Ko on stage, so this will have to do. This banner plays on Ko’s medical background: “treating pain is really simple.” I think this slogan might be more revealing than they intended. Treating pain is not the same as treating the underlying problem. Aspirin doesn’t do anything to stop cancer. By telling voters to ignore cross-straits issues, the TPP is essentially telling them not to bother treating the disease — the most important question facing society. They should just dull the pain by pretending the China question doesn’t exist.

The TPP’s core demographic.

5 Responses to “Campaign Trail: TPP rally in Taichung”

  1. Rev. Michael Stainton Says:

    Another great picture of Taiwan’s democracy in action. Thanks for all your hard work.

  2. jefftchan Says:

    “ Second, he wants to set up a new government bureaucracy to monitor pet dogs so that they do not become strays. Ok, dude. Thanks for addressing the tough issues. Stray dogs are definitely one of the top five problems facing Taiwan today, right after claw machines, confusing bus timetables, excessively sugary bubble tea drinks, and the lack of a 7-11 in my neighborhood.”

    I laughed so hard. I love reading your commentary. Thank you!

  3. kezza Says:

    The real problem is that TPP is not actually a serious political party by any stretch of imagination. It is really the KPP, i.e., a personal fans club of Ko in disguise, in the same way as the PFP is Soong’s fans club (now Terry Gou is perhaps taking over). Whereas Soong could lay claims of continuing CCK’s ideology, Ko has failed to develop his own brand (the only claim I saw is that budget execution rate is something like 77% as opposed to 50-ish under his predecessor, which in reality translates to “no large-scale multiyear projects”). Hence we see all they have are contingencies and no central values, not even “what’s the point of being Taiwanese?” (which is of course a crucial question if you want to run the highest political office of this land). I wouldn’t be surprised if, after elected, TPP legislators just vote along whatever Tsai Pi-ju think, similar to how the Democratic Party in Hong Kong LegCo voted on economic issues in the years 1995–2004 (i.e. whatever sounded right to Sin Chung-kai).

  4. Brown Says:

    Hi Garlic, what are your thoughts on expected voter turnout? Tsai may be ahead by 25% in the polls, but if there is high Blue turnout and low Green turnout, then that lead might be utterly negated.

    And I agree with Kezza, the TPP will only go as far as Ko takes it. When Ko retires or leaves, that TPP will have no staying power. Soong’s PFP might have nothing going for it either once Soong leaves.

  5. Ethan Says:

    Dr. Ko likes to think of himself as an intellectual elite, one who surpasses even the “elitist” establishment politicians. However, he fails to see that he was elected to office with the help of the same populist forces that brought Han Kuo-yu to power. The TPP, like its founder, lacks any core values to speak of, and exists only so that Dr. Ko can get a free ticket to the presidential nomination in 2024 (assuming the TPP wins at least 5% of the party proportional votes as predicted by the polls).

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