Frozen Garlic: Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.

On Saturday evening, I went to Freddy Lim’s rally on Ketagalan Boulevard, right in front of the presidential building. This was one of the most unique political rallies I have ever attended. I had just come from a very ordinary DPP rally, and the transition from that utterly conventional event to this very unconventional one was jarring, to say the least.

As I’m sure you all know, Freddy Lim, who became famous as a rock star and a human rights activist, was elected to the legislature four years ago in the Taipei City fifth district. In that race, he defeated longtime KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang. Think of an old-time, conservative, stern, orthodox, intellectual KMT politician, and the picture you have in your mind is pretty much Lin Yu-fang.

In 2016, the fledgling New Power Party announced that Freddy Lim would represent it in Taipei 5. The DPP designated Taipei 5 as a “difficult district,” and eventually decided to support Lim rather than nominating its own candidate. The race pitted the very square Lin against the long-hair death metal rocker Lim. The incumbent seemed bewildered by the challenger, never seeming able to believe that the voters would actually take such a person seriously. Lim’s supporters on social media delighted in making fun of the KMT’s inability to comprehend the changing world around them. Lin must have felt humiliated on election night, when the rock star beat him by about 6,000 votes.

Many NPP supporters took this result and the two other NPP wins as evidence of NPP popularity. After all, they had won in “difficult districts” where the DPP had previously been unable to even come close. In fact, “difficult district” label was misguided. The label was based on whether the DPP legislative candidate had been able to get 42.5% in the 2012 election, so many districts were labeled as “difficult” because the previous DPP candidate had been weak rather than because the underlying partisan balance was unfavorable to the DPP. (For example, Taichung 3, which was eventually won by the NPP’s Hung Tzu-yung, was actually one of the DPP’s strongest areas in Taichung, if one looked at the presidential results.) 42.5% was also far too low a threshold. Since Tsai won 45.6% in the 2012 presidential election, a district less than 5% below the DPP’s national average could be labeled as “difficult.” If they were going to win the legislature, they would need to contest most of these districts and win some of them. In fact, Tsai won 56.1% in the 2016 election, and she ended up winning a majority in several of the “difficult” districts. That is, there were enough green votes in these districts; all the legislative candidate had to do was soak up all the DPP presidential voters. They did not have to reach over to the other side of the political divide. Taipei 5 was one of these. Tsai won 53.4%, or about 8,000 more votes than Chu and Soong combined. Far from being an electoral standout, Freddy actually underperformed a tiny bit.

I have recounted this electoral history in detail because the 2020 race is a rematch of the 2016 race.

I estimate there were about 12,000 people, though I’d believe any number between 10,000 and 15,000. It seems silly to have to say this, but since I know some readers will dispute my number I will. 12,000 people is a fantastic crowd. They completely filled the space that they set out to fill, and it was jammed to the gills. There were a LOT of people there.

I had just come from a traditional event, and I was one of the youngest people in that crowd. At Freddy’s event, I was one of the oldest. I spent a lot of the rally thinking about this age gap. The Sunflower generation confuses me and people my age. It’s not that they are apolitical; they are more politicized than any generation of youth since at least the Wild Lily era – and probably even more than that generation. However, they do not engage politics in the same ways as older citizens. They don’t do traditional rallies (They don’t seem to enjoy the Frozen Garlic cheer, but they do seem to think that sitting quietly on the ground is very powerful.), they aren’t closely attached to political parties, they don’t get their information from traditional media or political talk shows, and they care about different things (same-sex marriage!). They share a nearly universal identity of being Taiwanese and not Chinese, so, unlike older voters, very few of them consider the KMT a palatable option. However, also unlike older voters, they don’t think that requires them to vote for the DPP. The KMT has been totally unable to connect with them; the DPP has only done a bit better. Packed tightly in a thick crowd of people younger than me, I wondered what motivated these people to come out to this particular event? What was Freddy doing to unlock this grand puzzle of Taiwan politics? Progressive political ideals are certainly part of the answer, but I also wonder if this generation consciously wants to practice politics in different ways than their parents and grandparents. The current society isn’t providing the same economic opportunities that their parents enjoyed, so maybe they feel the need to do things differently. At any rate, this event was theirs in the same way the rally I had just come from was for their parents and grandparents.

I guess I have skipped one obvious attraction. The rally was actually a hybrid political rally / rock concert.

How does Freddy “sing?” Imagine a lion roaring, but then scale that down to a smaller cat. Freddy sings like a lynx scowls.

Oh, one more thing. One of their songs commemorated the great, recently deceased Taiwan historian, Su Beng. Everyone should hear a completely sincere death metal tribute to a Marxist historian and failed terrorist at least once in their lives.

The second person in Freddy’s squad was Lai Pin-yu, the Sunflower activist who is running in New Taipei 12. I went to a KMT rally in New Taipei 12 on Sunday night, so I’ll do a full write-up of that race in my next post. For now, let’s just talk about Lai Pin-yu’s outfit. She went full cosplay, decked out in a red leather Japanese cartoon cute girl and/or superhero costume. (Is Kawaii Manga Girl an appropriate look for a death metal concert??) Everyone laughed with surprise when she first appeared, but I could tell right away that people were questioning her judgment. In her speech, she railed against her opponent. Her opponent is telling voters that Lai is too young and unqualified, while Lai retorted that her opponent has lots of experience making bad choices and doing harmful things. However, Lai was basically presenting herself as a cute, immature girl, thus playing right into her opponent’s attacks. When she finished speaking, the emcee said something to the effect of, “Lai is very brave! You have to have a good figure to dare to wear something like that in public.” It struck me as the emcee trying to say something nice while thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” [Note: You should know that Lee Yan-jung, the emcee, is a young woman, so that comment didn’t sound creepy the way it would have if you are imagining the emcee as an old man.] Later, when President Tsai showed up, Lai came on stage still wearing her full costume. Tsai gave her one of those weary looks out of the side of her eyes that professors give students when they are making terrible personal choices that we can’t say anything about. Lai’s choice was cute, fun, energetic, and totally inappropriate for a person in her position. If her opponent fully exploits it, this outfit might end up costing Lai the New Taipei 12 seat.

Next up was Chen Po-wei, who is representing the Statebuilding Party in Taichung 2. This is a tough race. Taichung 2 is a bit less green than the other districts in the old Taichung County, but the partisan balance is not the primary obstacle. The problem is that the Yen family owns this seat. The current incumbent is the son, but the key figure is the father, Yen Ching-piao. Before the elder Yen entered politics in the 1990s, he had (allegedly) already established himself as the most important organized crime boss in central Taiwan. Taichung 2 is his personal turf, and other politicians are wary of challenging him. President Tsai made a joke about taking out a life insurance policy for Chen Po-wei, except it wasn’t really a joke. You need to be young, fearless, idealistic, and a little stupid to challenge the Yen family.

Chen Po-wei might just be that person. I’m more and more impressed with him every time I hear him speak. On Saturday night, got a rousing ovation from the crowd when he was introduced, far beyond anything that Hung or Lai received. Once he started, it got even better. Charisma is impossible to define, but Chen Po-wei has it. He had an instinctive feel for the audience. He was sarcastic, he sang a little, he hit a few talking points, and the crowd ate it all up. This guy oozes political talent, and I’ll be watching his career over the next few years.

Enoch Wu Yi-nung was the fourth and final member of Freddy’s squad. Wu is running against Wayne Chiang in Taipei 3, in what is unquestionably the most glamorous and most consequential legislative race this year.

If you went into the laboratory and tried to create the perfect candidate, you might create something like Wu. He’s smart (Yale degree), successful in business (lucrative job at Goldman Sachs), patriotic (quit Goldman to return to Taiwan), idealistic (took a low paying job), handsome (see picture), and has become an expert in a critical policy area (national security). And yet, Wu is somehow less than the sum of those parts. Onstage, he is painfully raw. He could barely get through two sentences without awkwardly stopping and repeating himself.

I should note that back in Taipei 3, Wu might be making progress. Most pundits think that Chiang is a clear favorite to win re-election, but a new poll shows the race tied. That isn’t good news for Chiang. Chiang is the established brand who has spent the past four years doing constituency work and amassing favors. He is unlikely to win any new support at this late date. On the other hand, Wu is the new guy still introducing himself to voters. There are still lots of voters who don’t know about Wu’s fantastic resume, so Wu might still have room to expand his support. It’s just one poll, but if I were in Chiang’s camp, I’d be sweating nervously for the next couple weeks.

Freddy’s speech was excellent, and the crowd was extremely involved. [This crowd halfheartedly recited the ritualistic Frozen Garlic cheers, but when Freddy and some of the other speakers engaged them in more spontaneous ways, they were as loud and energetic as any Han rally of the past two years.] Freddy was simultaneously charismatic and substantive. One thing that surprised me was the balance between progressive and sovereignty issues. He did the progressive agenda first, but he went through it fairly quickly, ticking off items that he had worked on in the legislature. It was a good list, and it painted him as a serious and effective legislator. However, he seemed to be trying to get through this list as quickly as possible, because he really wanted to talk about sovereignty. When he finally got to Hong Kong, he slowed down and started really hammering home points with the audience. Perhaps his emphasis on sovereignty reflected a need to justify his decision to leave the NPP. At any rate, my mental evaluation of Freddy ticked up another notch after Saturday night.

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Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.

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