Huang Chen-yu strode onto an outdoor stage in a southern Taiwanese county, whooping and hollering as she roused the crowd of 20,000 into a joyous frenzy — to welcome a succession of politicians in matching jackets.
Taiwan is in the final days of its presidential election contest, and the big campaign rallies, with M.C.s like Ms. Huang, are boisterous, flashy spectacles — as if a variety show and a disco crashed into a candidate’s town hall meeting.
At the high point of the rally, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, was introduced to the crowd in Chiayi, a county in southern Taiwan. Ms. Huang roared in Taiwanese, “Frozen garlic!”
The phrase “dongsuan” sounds like “get elected” and, yes, also like “frozen garlic.” Ms. Huang and another M.C. led the crowd of supporters, now on their feet, in a rapid-fire, call-and-response chant: “Lai Ching-te! Frozen garlic! Lai Ching-te! Frozen garlic!” Then they sped up: “Lai Ching-te! Lai Ching-te! Lai Ching-te! Frozen garlic! Frozen garlic! Frozen garlic!”
For Ms. Huang, the event, days before Taiwan’s election on Saturday, was one of at least 15 rallies she would have led by the end of this campaign season.
The rallies, and their chants of “frozen garlic,” are a central ritual in Taiwan’s democracy. The rival parties display their candidates and policies under flashing stage lights, accompanied by banners, chants, singers and celebrities. Some feature dancers with tight outfits and flirty moves not often seen onstage in American presidential campaigning.
The job of the M.C.s like Ms. Huang, who are usually politicians or activists with strong voices and a melodramatic delivery, is to fire up their parties’ otherwise bland presentation of candidates, almost always wearing their campaign jackets: green for the Democratic Progressives, white and blue for the Nationalists.
Ms. Huang, just over five feet tall, is such a skilled — and, frankly, loud — master of the art that she coaches other Democratic Progressive Party activists in hosting rallies.
“My job is to draw out the emotion and passion of the crowd,” Ms. Huang, who runs a farmers’ association when she’s not on the campaign trail, said in an interview. Warming up the crowd for the star candidate is crucial, she said. “When the time comes for the big entrance, you don’t want everyone just sitting there flapping their flags; you have to light a fire in their hearts.”
She had some advice for preserving vocal cords through as many as three rallies in a day: “If you don’t use your abdominal strength, you will be ruined after one show.”
During Taiwan’s elections, bands of musicians, dancers, singers, and technicians support the rallies, which in the final week of campaigning are held nightly.
At a Nationalist Party’s rally in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, Wang Chien-kang gazed up from the side of the stage, stroking and striking his keyboard to create the right soundtrack for the politicians. A drumroll when a candidate was introduced. Ominous electro-orchestra at the mention of the opposition. A clash of cymbals to mark the punchline of a joke.
“You have to pay attention to the emotions they’re showing up on the stage,” said Mr. Wang, who in his dark cardigan resembled a music school professor who had stumbled into the hullabaloo. “Then you have to think up the right background for it. It’s no use in doing homework beforehand. You draw on your experience.”
Some performers and technicians work to support their party; others, including Mr. Wang, do it for whichever side pays.
“Whoever likes us and is willing to sign us up; we don’t pick between political positions and like to go and put on a show for everyone,” said Gao Ying-jhe, a performer whose troupe had just warmed up the Tainan rally with a somewhat edgy electro-dance routine.
The dance helped put the attendees in the right mood, he said. “At the start, people don’t know each other, but because they have this more relaxed downtime, they’ll do things that they don’t normally do.”
The rallies have grown in Taiwan as multiparty democracy replaced decades of martial law and authoritarian rule under the Nationalists, starting in the 1990s. The Democratic Progressive Party, which helped hasten the democratic transition, has made the gatherings, also called “wave making rallies,” part of its brand.
“At the start, the Democratic Progressive Party had this image of violent resistance, so I think that they softened their image” with these rallies, said Chien Li-ying, one of the scriptwriters for a Taiwanese Netflix drama about party campaign strategists. Taiwanese voters expect their candidates to show a “human touch,” Ms. Chien said.
“Whether you can show up and mix with the people is very important,” she added.
The rallies help to “solidify the commitment of supporters,” Ho Hsin-Chun, a Democratic Progressive lawmaker in central Taiwan, said in an interview. The people who turn up are mostly committed supporters, she said, but they come away with the feeling that they matter: “You really have to energetically draw in votes for me, energetically encourage everyone you know to commit to voting.”
For the candidates, election season also means visits to temples, where they bow at altars and burn incense for local deities, such as Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. It also means “street sweeps,” when candidates and their supporters walk briskly through neighborhoods, knocking on doors, shaking hands, and urging residents to vote for them. Campaigning politicians sometimes also drop in on weddings and funerals.
The two leading presidential candidates — Mr. Lai from the Democratic Progressives and Hou Yu-ih from the opposition Nationalist Party — have spent a good part of the past month pounding the pavement and attending rallies.
Some attendees show up spontaneously and file into the waiting seats and standing areas. Others are invited or cajoled to come along by local party organizers who usher them to their assigned seats, banners ready.
Some Taiwanese politicians wince in embarrassment when asked about the rallies. Mature democracies should not need such time-consuming, expensive spectacles, some would say privately. But Taiwan’s enthusiasm for the rites of democracy stands out at a time when many Western democracies suffer a surfeit of citizen disillusionment.
“You, of course, also find plenty of Taiwanese people who are very cynical about their politics,” said Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania in Australia who studies Taiwan’s political culture, “but at the end of the day what brings out 50,000 people at a rally is a belief in their democracy, and right now, especially, that commitment has something to teach the rest of the world.”
Still, age is catching up on the rallies. They have long attracted mostly older supporters, and the crowds look even grayer these days, when younger Taiwanese tend to be less attached to traditional parties and politics. (Ko Wen-je, a candidate from the new, insurgent Taiwan People’s Party, is an exception who has drawn plenty of young supporters to his rallies.)
“Most of my friends are not that keen on talking about politics,” said Lin Yi-hsien, 23, one of the few younger faces at the rally in Chiayi. “I come here because I like the lively vibe and the Taiwanese values that it displays.”
Jacky Liu, a 66-year-old musician attending the Nationalist Party event in Tainan, said that he generally disliked such mass gatherings, and was coaxed into going by his wife and friends. Even so, he seemed to be having a fine time, swaying and chanting in his bright, flower-ringed hat.
“Sure, I was pushed to come along,” he said. “But nobody can push around my mind.”