What you need to know
Freddy Lim, an internationally renowned heavy metal singer and civic activist, is part of a new wave of politicians trying to reshape Taiwanese society. In an interview at his Taipei office, Lim reflects on his time in the Legislative Yuan so far, the pace of reform in Taiwan and the New Power Party’s future prospects.
New Power Party (NPP) legislator Freddy Lim’s (林昶佐) office in Taipei: trendy boots, tight jeans and fashionable haircuts abound. Near the entrance, a poster of the late David Bowie hangs on a wall and an electric guitar sits in a stand. In the meeting room, one wall is dominated by huge photo of Lim’s band Chthonic playing to thousands in Taipei’s Liberty Square, and in the corner there is an electronic drum kit.
Lim, however, does not believe he and the four other NPP members who stormed through the January election have changed the culture of the 113-person Legislative Yuan. Yet.
He and the other NPP legislators, Lim says, are “unique,” but other parliamentarians think they are “a little weird.” Given their popularity, the parliament, which is still dominated by the traditional Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT) blocs, will have time to get used to this group.
Lim, a well-known political figure in Taiwan, believes the NPP’s supporter base is actually underrepresented in the Legislative Yuan. The NPP continues to regularly garner a large amount of media exposure, relative to the number of seats they hold – Lim points to surveys showing himself and fellow NPP members Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) and Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) as the most talked about legislators online.
But he believes the party, formed in January 2015, missed an opportunity in the January election to fully capture the support that was available in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. If the party had greater political expertise, and better strategies in place, it could have gained more seats. The NPP pulled out of some electorates because it did not have enough candidates, and told supporters to instead vote for the DPP candidate – in the end, it won three constituency seats and two proportional seats.
“We only got 6-7% [of the votes] but according to the research we could achieve almost 15%,” Lim says. “In future, I think we can get even more support.”
“There are a lot of opinion leaders in the movement working in our party offices. We are encouraging them to run for office in the 2018 local elections,” he says.
Lim, who plays a key role in attracting new recruits to the party, adds that by 2018 he expects the party to have more people from the next generation of voters – “younger than me, I am 40 now.”
Taking on the DPP's conservative tendencies
The NPP broadly supports the DPP’s reform agenda. It sees its role as “guiding” the DPP closer to its own positions. Lim acknowledges that since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May, the DPP has become more politically conservative – a sign, he says, of the greater responsibility it now has in government. This is why the NPP’s role in the legislature is so important, he says. Without it, Taiwan would be served by the increasingly conservative DPP, and the ultra-conservative KMT.
While the NPP's job has only just started, and will continue “act by act,” Lim says he can already “see the influence” his party is having in taking the conservative edge off DPP policies.
“We always fight very hard, every day, in every committee,” he says, also noting that in some debates KMT members have not bothered to show.
NPP is also trying to push its own reform agenda; transitional justice, the return of KMT assets, phasing out nuclear power, labor and indigenous rights, among others. In Taiwan, Lim says, difficult policy debates are often perennially delayed, slowing the pace of change. The party knows that such major changes will take time – in some cases years – which is why it is working to introduce as many major amendments in the early stages of the new government’s term as it can.
But do these such issues, notwithstanding their importance, hold sway with the general electorate – who may be more concerned with their stagnant salary and Taiwan’s sluggish economy?
Lim acknowledges the rationale behind the question, but says the party has been “very strong and clear” on “what we stand for” and its supporters expect the five NPP legislators to act on these issues. He adds that many NPP legislators and party staffers have been working in civil society for more than 10 years and have a good understanding of the challenges facing society, including workers.
Pace of change and the China question
Widespread societal reform, as demanded by the Sunflower Movement and the NPP, does not happen overnight. But will NPP supporters understand that in politics, particularly for a minority party, forcing change is often excruciatingly slow and is almost always hard-fought?
“I think most of the supporters realize this,” Lim says.
Take the issue of Taiwanese independence, a cause that NPP and Lim are synonymous, but it is certainly a long-term term game.
Lim clarifies: “Normally I don’t use the term ‘independence.’ I would say ‘normalize’ the statehood of Taiwan. But I wouldn’t say the country is not independent yet. I would say it is already independent.”
He says to achieve this "normalization," a lot of things need to happen: constitutional reform, amendments to laws, not to mention changes in Taiwanese society and international relations. NPP supporters, he says, understand this.
“According to the polls, most people consider that Taiwan is their country. But at the same time, most people realize that we can’t achieve that in the short-term.”
Politics can be filled with empty promises; what NPP supporters expect, he says, is that “realistic” changes, albeit incremental, are consistently made. An example of a small change towards that "normalization," he says, would be for Taiwanese and international diplomats and officials to drop ‘Chinese Taipei’ and start referring to Taiwan as "Taiwan."
Lim says, like many countries Taiwan has focused too much on its relationship with China. While the NPP doesn’t plan to use its time in parliament to criticize the DPP over how it handles Taiwan’s sensitive relationship with China, it will push the DPP on its “regional strategy” and removing the Taiwan's economic dependence on China. It wants to see progress made on better engagement with other countries in Asia and further afield, and it believes the government should help Taiwanese companies with interests in China relocate to other parts of Asia.
While change will likely be slow and incremental, and the NPP’s edgy aesthetics may not transform the fabric of the Legislative Yuan overnight, the party, like the movement it spawned from, is undoubtedly continuing to change politics in Taiwan.
The NPP, fed up with political media spinning and misrepresenting its statements, has started posting live video feeds from all its events and press conferences.
It makes user-friendly videos to break-down and explain complicated policies and amendments. And Lim, who has less time to put on the face paint and don the leathers these days, still uses music to engage with fans.
“I try to share my point of view and then exchange ideas with my supporters in different ways,” he says. “I might not just type a long statement on Facebook. I may just share a song from YouTube, with some short lines with my point of view. I think our supporters like that very much, because I am not preaching.”
Edited by: J. Michael Cole