Tea Leaf Nation

Taiwan’s Newest Political Party Was Co-Founded by a Tattooed Rockstar

Can the NPP transform the island's youth movement into something lasting?

Tsai and Lim Facebook

TAIPEI — Early on the morning of Nov. 4, the day after news leaked in early November that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou would meet his mainland Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the first meeting of its kind in more than 60 years, members of the newly-formed New Power Party (NPP) staged a protest in front of Taiwan’s legislature. “Ma has no authority to represent our people at this meeting,” Huang Kuo-chang, a 42-year-old law professor turned activist, yelled over a microphone, as young volunteers behind him held a banner that read “Recall Ma Ying-jeou.”

The NPP marks an attempt to channel into an electable political platform the energy and frustration of youthful activists that came to political consciousness under the Ma administration. Over the last eight years, the Kuomintang (KMT) government under Ma has steered the self-governing island of 23 million closer to China, which lists reunification with Taiwan among the mainland’s core interests. Ma’s policy stands at odds with growing fear of mainland Chinese influence, and is a major factor in his abysmal approval ratings. Last year, during the Sunflower movement, students and activists, including Huang, occupied Taiwan’s legislature in protest of a controversial trade pact with China. Now, activists like Huang that have opposed Ma’s Beijing-friendly agenda on the streets are trying something new: running for legislative seats.

For years, Taiwan has been locked in a two-party rivalry, with the KMT representing pro-Beijing interests and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pushing to maintain the status quo of de facto independence. Minor parties such as the center-right People First Party, established in 2000, and the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, established in 2001, have been unable to gain significant traction. But the NPP isn’t satisfied with the two-party system or the status quo. It says it wants to usher in a new transparent and democratic politics on the island — what it’s framing as a civic awakening — that it hopes will pave the way for official and legal independence. In the process, it wouldn’t mind toppling the KMT, which it sees as a pernicious influence on the island. On Jan. 16, when Taiwanese head to the polls, the NPP hopes to ride the same wave of public dissatisfaction that will likely win the DPP the presidency, and establish itself as a formidable third party in Taiwan’s traditionally two-party landscape.

The NPP, at first glance, is a band of political misfits; among their most visible members is a prominent academic-turned-activist, a novelist, and a heavy metal rocker. In Taiwan, where party allegiances run deep and being a politician is often a life-long occupation, the NPP is unconventional — perhaps just what the island, where cynicism about politics runs deep, needs. “One survey listed politicians as among the least trusted professions in Taiwan,” said Freddy Lim, the 39-year-old front man of the popular Taiwanese heavy metal band, the Chthonic. (“No one distrusts musicians,” he added.) A long-time political activist, Lim has recently lent his public profile to several social movements, including 2014’s Sunflower movement. Earlier this year, he decided to cross the line into politics, tying up his wild black hair into a neat ponytail and trading black eyeliner for a slender suit. He’s now running for as the NPP candidate for the legislature in central Taipei.

During last year’s Sunflower movement, much of students’ anger and defiance was not only directed towards Ma and his KMT government, but also towards Taiwan’s political system in general. By their standards, the system had grown unresponsive to public opinion. Ma had abused a lack of constitutional oversight to push forward his pro-China agenda, while the DPP, the political party that would otherwise have represented their opposition to Ma, had grown too old and feeble to take him on effectively. When DPP legislators showed up to support them, students chided them for not doing more to oppose the KMT agenda. “The DPP has had a goal of trying to co-opt the participants of the Sunflower movement,” said Mark Harrison, a Taiwan specialist at the University of Tasmania, a public research university in Australia. “In a sense, the NPP expresses the limits of this.”

“Our goal is to be able to gradually eliminate the KMT,” said Lim. “We don’t believe a mature two-party system includes the KMT and the DPP, because the KMT is an undemocratic, pre-modern political party.” Much of his band’s past music has dealt with crimes committed by the KMT, which after fleeing mainland China in the wake of World War Two ruled Taiwan via martial law until democratization in the 1990s. “It has held on to so much property, and has killed so many people,” said Lim, referring to the assets the KMT requisitioned after it retreating from the mainland to the island; the KMT has not returned a good deal of these assets to the state, making it the richest political party in the world that stands in democratic elections. In 2009, the band burned a KMT flag on stage. One of the Chthonic’s recent music videos features soldiers walking in lock step between the KMT and Nazi flags. Foreign Policy reached out to the KMT’s main office on Lim’s candidacy and treatment of the party’s symbols but has not received a response.

Lim and the NPP are employing a tested formula that combines a visible public profile with a youthful vibe to broaden the reach of progressive politics among young people. During the Sunflower movement, a number of celebrities, including Internet sensation Cheng Chia-chen, known by her nickname “Chicken Cutlet Girl” after a video of her demonstrating how to fry chicken went viral, used their fame to bring young people onto the streets. The NPP’s candidates have traded the characterless party vests typically worn by candidates – a sartorially unfortunate tradition in Taiwanese elections — for trendy if visually aggressive yellow jackets emblazoned with black letters that might not look out of place if donned by a boy band. Lim is running in a KMT stronghold in central Taipei, where he’s contesting the seat of a KMT legislator with ties to the military. In Taichung’s third electoral district, another KMT stronghold, the NPP candidate for legislature is Hung Tzu-yung, a 31-year old former saleswoman who entered the spotlight last year after her brother’s death following disciplinary punishment during his mandatory military service sparked public protest. She’s running a youthful, energetic campaign focused on cleaning up politics.

It’s an uphill battle to the say the least, one that wouldn’t have been possible only a few years ago, before youthful dissent coalesced into a major movement. “It was always civic society that had to confront Ma,” Huang told me, just days after exhorting protesters via bullhorn in front of the Taiwan legislature. Huang, who was a researcher at the esteemed Academia Sinica and leader during the Sunflower movement, resigned his post in May to become the NPP’s chairman, after he was elected by an online poll — one way the NPP is trying to create a more transparent politics. He is now running for legislature in his home district, a suburb district outside Taipei. “In the process [of confronting Ma], we came to believe it is important to convert the support and energy from civil society into our congress,” he said.

While the DPP has moderated its line on many issues, including independence, as it prepares itself to govern, the NPP hopes to push a more transformative agenda. Chief among the young party’s objectives is a new constitution with more democratic oversight. The current document was written by the KMT in 1946 under the assumption that it would rule all of China. “The content of the constitution contains 36 provinces including Taiwan, now we only have Taiwan,” said Neil Peng, a popular Taiwanese author and screenwriter with a colorful public personal, who until Nov. 19 was running as NPP candidate in Tanshui, outside Taipei. “Using it is a joke.” The thorny issue of defining Taiwan’s relationship with China in the constitution will likely not only irk Beijing and pro-China factions, but the DPP as well, which is committed to maintaining the ambiguous status-quo. “The Taiwanese people never had a chance to decide on our constitution,” said Huang. “A group of old people elected in China decided that there is ‘one China’ that it has two areas — one is free Taiwan and the other is the mainland. That is absurd.”

For the time being, politics and electioneering have thrust the NPP and the DPP into a convenient — if awkward — partnership. The DPP gets to use the NPP’s youthful vibe to energize youth support, while the NPP benefits from the legitimizing seal of an established political party. Perhaps most notably, DPP presidential contender Tsai Ing-wen has appeared with NPP candidates in public on more than one occasion. In one photo published Aug. 19 on the Tsai’s Facebook page, she poses next to Lim, making the heavy-metal sign of the horn with both hands, sporting the caption, “In fact I can also be very ROCKER” (emphasis in the original). While as activists NPP figures regularly criticized the DPP, they’ve adopted a more restrained tack as candidates. At one point during his interview with FP, Lim began to say something about the DPP, but forced himself to stop. “That would be too low,” he says with a laugh.

The two parties have cooperated in carving out legislative districts to prevent NPP and DPP candidates from splitting the vote. Still, the districts the DPP has ceded to the NPP are bastions of KMT support, places the DPP wouldn’t have expended political capital anyway. The upstart NPP hasn’t shied away from the challenge. “That is exactly what makes this so meaningful, because when we talk about changing the structure of our congress, it’s important for us to win districts like these,” said Huang. Whether the NPP can transcend traditional party loyalties and cleavages with their legions of young volunteers, fresh message, and new faces remains to be seen, though it seems likely the NPP will pick up at least a few seats. Already, less than a year after its founding, the NPP is polling at 6.8 percent of nationwide public support, which makes it Taiwan’s third most popular party.

Tanshui, where Taipei’s urban landscape meets the island’s rural northern expanse, might symbolize where the NPP’s biggest challenges lie. In the conservative, traditional district, Peng has struggled in the polls. At his campaign office — which, with the author’s library strewn across the shelves and floor, looks more like a bookstore than a campaign office– optimism still abounds. “Only a few years ago, older people gathering at the temple wouldn’t want to talk to you, but after the Sunflower movement they respect us. They’ll listen to what we have to say,” said one campaign worker, a graduate student at National Taiwan University. A week after FP interviewed Peng at his campaign office, he bowed out of the race, yielding to the district’s DPP candidate, who has a better chance of carrying the district. For the NPP, even if this election doesn’t bring wide success, it’s proven inspiring to some. And the party seems set on sticking around. Volunteers enthusiastically compared it to the DPP, which itself grew out the democracy movement in the 1980s. No matter how his party fares in the January’s election, Peng seemed upbeat. “We’re going to continue teaching young people about democracy,” he said.

Image: Facebook/Fair Use

Lorand C. Laskai is a Beijing-based writer who previously lived in Tainan, Taiwan. He tweets from @lorandlaskai. Twitter: @lorandlaskai