In Search of Divine Intervention – Temples as a Stage for Presidential Elections Theatre

What is going on?

As the race for the upcoming January 2024 presidential and legislative elections is well into play, three presidential hopefuls of the leading parties, recently joined by an independent candidate, continue visiting temples across Taiwan to mobilize their supporters. They are not, however, the only ones who are seeking support for their agendas within religious circles. In recent years, anti-democratic actors, many of whom have connections to the People’s Republic of China, have been expanding the scale of their activities to exercise political influence through religious channels.


What is the broader picture?

Four presidential candidates in the 2024 elections, including William Lai (賴清德) from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) of the Kuomintang (KMT), Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People’s Party, and an independent candidate who just recently announced his bid for Taiwan’s presidency, Terry Gou (郭台銘) are continuing their nationwide visits to Taiwan’s major religious sites. Only recently, William Lai visited  the Huo Sheng Temple in Taipei’s Da’an District, which is popular amongst firefighters; Ko Wen-je’s closest supporters visited the Guan Di Temple in Hsinchu; Hou Yu-ih prayed at the Tzu Feng Temple in Pingtung, and Terry Gou was speaking to his supporters at the Ci-Hui Temple in Banqiao District of New Taipei. Also, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited the Taisheng Temple in Chiayi County in support of the DPP Legislator Tsai Yi-yu (蔡易餘).

Syncretism defines Taiwan’s religious landscape. According to 2021 statistics, 27.9% of Taiwanese declare themselves as followers of traditional folk religion, 19.8% as Buddhists, 18.7% as Taoists, and 23.9% declared no religion. At the same time, there is little distinction between the practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions. With 15,186 temples and churches in Taiwan, including 9,717 Taoist and 2,281 Buddhist temples, religion and related temple tours have always played an important role in Taiwanese politics. Temple-centered networks are instrumental tools for politicians to secure their votes.

Temples visits by politicians involve worships, prayers, symbolic offerings, and appeals to the most revered deities to gain electoral support. Remarks by the local and national religious leaders on presidential candidates garner the attention of traditional and social media and have an impact on public opinion, such as the one made by late Buddhist master Hsing Yun (星雲), a supporter of the KMT, who stated that Tsai Ing-wen is a personification of Matsu goddess which foresaw her 2016 victory. Religious sites also serve as immediate stages for dramatic encounters with presidential hopefuls involved. Such an incident took place in July 2023 when Ko Wen-je and Hou Yu-ih visited the Taipei Zhinan Temple, causing tension over the fact that two visits took place at the same time. In other case, Hou Yu-ih’s absence during the celebration for the city god in Kinmen, which is considered to be a KMT stronghold, evoked media speculations on its possible reasons.

Why does it matter?

The upcoming presidential elections in Taiwan not only will impact the political future of Taiwan, but also affect the trajectory of the relations between Washington and Beijing. While temple visits and associated events as gateways to gain popular votes have always been an inalienable part of presidential campaigns, deeply embedded in the Taiwanese sociocultural and political context, there are substantiative fears that China will try to impose its own propaganda and change the voters’ preferences through the operations within the Taiwanese grassroots organizations, including local temples. The full scale of these activities, and the extent of the political influence is yet to be estimated. However, according to the report by the Information Operations Research Group (IORG), one can observe a steady increase in Chinese efforts to co-opt religious sites and organizations to influence Taiwanese politics.