The origin of this custom lies in the Taiwanese’s interest in homonyms – words with the same pronunciation but multiple meanings.
The political culture of the democratic island of 23 million inhabitants is imbued with lucky symbols and superstition. Candidates do not hesitate to turn to a feng-shui master to find out the best location for their campaign headquarters or the ideal day for its inauguration.
Garlic (suan) is particularly prized, its pronunciation meaning “selected“. But the white radish (tsai-tao) is the big winner because it is pronounced like “good luck“, and pineapple (ong-lai) as “prosperity is coming“.
Ke Chiong-shu, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, sells vegetables at a market in Taipei where many local election candidates turned up on Saturday.
AFP saw former health minister Chen Shih-chung, candidate for mayor of Taipei, one of the most important positions to be filled in this election, take radishes and fresh garlic to this trader.
“I hope you will be elected“, she launched to him, when the pretender to the town hall of the capital, proudly brandished his vegetables to the crowd.
“I give it to all the candidates, whatever their political color“, explains Ms. Ke.
After turning the page on decades of martial law in 1987, Taiwan has become one of Asia’s most vibrant and progressive democracies. This is enough to worry neighboring China, which considers the island as part of its territory and which has sworn to regain control, by force if necessary.
The island almost gives the impression of living to the rhythm of election campaigns.
Presidential and legislative elections take place every 4 years. Between the two, local elections are held to elect, in particular, the mayors of large cities and village chiefs.
The inhabitants are also regularly called upon to decide by referendum on constitutional questions.
Saturday’s elections, for example, include a referendum on lowering the voting age from 20 to 18.
– A message to China –
“What characterizes local elections in Taiwan is how personalized things are“, political scientist Lev Nachman told AFP.
Greetings, exchanging handshakes, or even just nodding your head can also go a long way in garnering a candidate’s support.
“Older voters like to see their politicians in the markets and early in the morning on the streets“, according to this specialist in Taiwanese electoral politics.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power, Beijing has cut off official communications with the island, stepped up military exercises, tightened economic pressures and wrested seven of its diplomatic allies from Taiwan.
The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), to which the president re-elected in 2020 belongs, considers Taiwan to be a de facto sovereign nation.
The opposition is dominated by the Kuomintang party which is more favorable to a rapprochement with China.
Tensions between Taipei and Beijing reached their highest level in August, after the visit of Nancy Pelosi – American political figure – to which Beijing retorted with gigantic military maneuvers.
But the threat of a conflict does not seem to be at the center of the concerns of the next election.
“Even though we have just experienced these intense military maneuvers in August, the local candidates do not really talk about it“, points out Mr. Nachman.”Instead, it’s much more about attacking opponents based on (…) their character“, he added.
Nevertheless, Lin Pei-ying, 36, a DPP candidate, said she believes her party’s commitment to maintaining Taiwan’s democratic way of life will always influence voters’ decisions.
“We send a message to China“, she told AFP. “Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China“.