elections: Seeking the divine vote
By Wei Yun
TAIPEI - In a recent melding of the pious, the political and the pragmatic, the
president of Taiwan's legislature, Wang Jin-pyng, locked himself in a Buddhist
temple near Kaohsiung for two days during the Lunar New Year holiday. Wang, a
key adviser to the political opposition and a devout Buddhist, said the
solitude and meditation provided him with political inspiration for the March
Taiwan elections always have their share of exotic, even bizarre - to the
outside observer - phenomena. But here religion - or at least its outward forms
of devotion - is an integral part of any successful election campaign. And many
voters believe the divinities do attend to mortal political affairs and even
reach down a helping hand to worthy candidates. Many believe that because of
the sanctified aura of temples, politicians cannot tell lies once inside their
In the presidential election on March 20, voters will decide between President
Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - he claims no
religious affiliation - and Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT), a Buddhist.
Incumbent Vice President Annette Lu is a Buddhist and opposition
vice-presidential candidate James Soong of the People First Party (PFP) has not
declared a religious affiliation. But all of them court the gods.
Religion is often overlooked in outside reporting on Taiwan's political
process. Though the island is predominantly Buddhist, various religious
traditions and beliefs play an integral part in daily life - more so during
campaigns. Religious rituals often are undertaken on political occasions, the
auspicious timing and location of which are all calculated to bring good luck.
When it comes to libel, slander and insult - far from unknown in the political
arena - shrines are the perfect place for defamed candidates to behead a
sacrificial rooster, praying to the divinities to drive away even the most
venomous slander. Though libel and insult were far more common in early
election campaigns, shrines continue to be a prime destination for sacrificial
offerings - pig, cow and lamb being the three major animals for slaughter,
followed by chicken and fish. Many people believe that candidates cannot lie in
the presence of a god or goddess and, thus, the truth will out and lies will be
dispelled by divine intervention.
Religion and politics collide and collude
Thus, when religion collides with elections in Taiwan, a unique culture
evolves, one that affects political platforms and campaigns, as well as
parliamentary and presidential contenders. In an effort to garner public
support, political figures and election hopefuls will get down on their knees
in temples throughout the island regardless of their religious persuasion.
During his initial election run in 2000, President Chen knelt down on the
ground for 20 minutes with his campaign aides to pray for blessings from above.
His prayers seemed to have been answered, and this time around Chen's opponent,
Lien Chan and other contenders are paying obeisance.
The kowtow show during Chinese New Year on January 22 was an illuminating
example. During the holiday believers traditionally flock to shrines, praying
for better luck and fortune in the coming year. Just two months prior to the
poll, it was important to keep attention focused on the election and both the
opposition - known as the pan-blues - and the governing party - known as the
pan-greens - worshipped in temples throughout the island, burning incense,
humming prayers and placing offerings.
On the first day of lunar year 2004 alone, Vice President Annette Lu galloped
through 11 temples, while her opposition rival James Soong swept through four
shrines from New Year's Eve until early the next day. Their fervor was duly
noted and reported.
Taiwan is a religious melting pot, including Buddhism and Taoism - the dominant
faiths - along with many imported religions, including Islam and Christianity.
Religious observances are important to all of them. Even Falungong, a spiritual
movement outlawed by Beijing as an "evil cult", finds fertile ground and
tolerance in Taiwan, though it hasn't fielded any candidates in this election.
Presbyterian Church, Buddhist groups influential
Religious groups can influence Taiwan politics. The Presbyterian Church, for
example, has a long missionary history in Taiwan, and former president Lee
Teng-hui is one of Taiwan's most prominent Presbyterians. Still, even Lee -
taught never to bow before false gods - followed custom during his campaign,
kowtowing in temples in order to appeal to potential voters.
Other powerful Buddhist groups include Tsu Chi and Fo Guang Shan. Tsu Chi
provides many charitable and welfare services in Taiwan and Fo Guang Shan - led
by Hsin Yun, a prominent Buddhist leader - gathers its strength and donations
from the millions of followers worldwide.
Many politicians attend events sponsored by these groups. President Chen, for
example, agreed to halt the construction of a highway from Kaohsiung city to
Hua-lien city after he met the Tsu Chi leader, who has long opposed the project
because of potential environmental damage. Although Chen eventually resumed
highway construction after other lobbying, the millions of Tsu Chi followers
are still considered an important political factor.
Regardless of their political decisions, all candidates receive positive
feedback and applause from religious disciples and common worshippers when
paying homage at shrines. When campaigns encounter discord and antagonism, as
they often do, most religious followers put the political games aside in the
holy sanctums, believing that earthly strife is out of place.
According to Chinese myth, many of these deities once lived as mortals and were
given divine status because of their special virtues or contributions. In fact,
there are guardian deities for almost every aspect of human life. The Chinese
deities revered in Taiwan, notably Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and Matsu,
the Empress of Heaven, all had their origins on the Chinese mainland.
Matsu is considered by many the most important deity to the Taiwanese people.
Because Taiwan is surrounded by the sea, it has been battered by numerous
typhoons. As a result, fishermen - who tend to pray to gods and goddesses
protecting their trade - have long been very keen followers of Matsu.
Parliament chief once led pilgrims across the Strait
Yan Cing-biao, a member of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's democratically
elected parliament, and Speaker of the Taichung County parliament, also is a
pious follower of Matsu. He once led thousands of pilgrims across the Taiwan
Strait on a pilgrimage to the Matsu Shrine on Meizhou Island, off the Chinese
mainland's Fujian province. He even turned to Matsu for mystic and occult
directions as to which candidate he should support in the 2000 presidential
Sometimes, however, political input from the gods is not always a blessing and
can jeopardize a politician's future. Frank Hsieh, ex-chairman of the DPP, was
criticized in 2002 when he sought reappointment as mayor of Kaohsiung despite
his suspected involvement in a cult deception. Hsieh was attacked for his
devotion to a cult, which many critics said had been involved in sex orgies and
tax evasions. Hsieh insisted he believed in the cult leader, Soong Chih-lik,
who is now facing several lawsuits, including one on tax evasion and sexual
As elections near, both the pan-blue and pan-green camps will continue to give
wide publicity and attention to the so-called oracles auspicious to their own
"destined" candidates, and it seems the politicized religious fever will not
subside until the moment comes to vote. But as to whether it is the gods or the
electorate will choose the president, who knows? Consult the oracles, pray to
the gods or ask the stars.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact
firstname.lastname@example.org for information on our
sales and syndication policies.)