VOTE 2016: What Young Taiwanese Voters WantYoung voters in Taiwan have a detailed understanding of the politics of their country and take a keen interest in seeing the election of politicians who can make Taiwan a better place
With youth shaping up to be a deciding factor in Taiwan’s Jan. 16 elections, the main political parties have directly appealed to the youth in recent weeks, with the “Walk with the Children” advertisement by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) acknowledgement in an interview with Bloomberg that his party had to do more to win back the youth vote.
With a day left before the elections, we ask what kind of issues young people care about and what they want from politics.
In the past, Taiwanese youth were often spoken of as a group (“Taiwanese youth”) and referred to in the third person, as though they had no thoughts of their own and acted as a mere collective. However, the rise of small parties in the current election campaign — many led by young people — indicates that youth are starting to make their voice heard in the Taiwanese political landscape.
The small parties include the New Power Party (NPP), which sprung from the 2014 Sunflower Movement, and the Green Party-Social Democratic Alliance Party (The China Policy Institute Blog has a comprehensive list of young politicians running in the election). These parties hope to directly address the issues facing youth.
While many parts of the Western world see increasing youth disengagement with politics, Taiwan’s young people have been bucking this trend. For example, the November 2014 “nice in one” elections had one of the highest youth voter turnouts with over 70% of those in the 20-29 age group casting votes. In the current elections, despite speculation that the KMT government could make it harder for young people to vote, current signs indicate that youth voter turnout will nevertheless be high.
To find out what politics mean to the young people of Taiwan, I spoke with more than 10 voters under the age of 30. These voters ranged from active protesters to those who do not engage with politics at all. Despite interviewing such a diverse group of young people, it was possible to identify some issues that were applicable across the board.
The current young generation is more socially progressive and largely active online, using social media sites frequently each day. They are unlikely to be a member of a political party and when trying to research political views will turn first to online media sources. They reject traditional media sources (television, newspapers) and instead almost exclusively use the Internet to obtain their news. This has implications for politics, as for political parties to reach out to the next generation of voters they will need to be more active online instead of relying on traditional media methods.
The first conclusion drawn from the interviews was the disparity between the coverage of issues in the media and the issues that concern young voters personally. Many of the respondents highlighted the relationship between China and Taiwan as an important issue facing Taiwan but not one that affected them personally.
“The most urgent issue facing Taiwan would be the China problem; it is connected to every social and political aspect of our life. But to me personally, it’s not the most important issue,” said Min, 26, from Tainan.
For Jimmy, 23, from Taipei, ‘”the ‘92 consensus’ and the economic implications of our relationship with China are largely important.”
Following the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the KMT administration depicted the youth as “anti China” and “anti trade.” However, many of the young people interviewed for this article seemed to appreciate the economic opportunities that China offered. For Teddy, 29, from Taipei, under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration the China-Taiwan relationship was “moving in the right direction” but the process of improving relations “wasn’t conducted in the right way.” Teddy says he hopes that future administrations will “use the China-Taiwan relationship to benefit future generations of Taiwan.”
However, when it came to the issues that affected youth personally, domestic issues were by far the largest concern, such as low wages, housing affordability and poor employment prospects. As Peter from Taipei said, “the average salary doesn’t even let us meet our own needs.”
For Jun, 26, also from Taipei, “there is unequal income distribution which is leading to a widening income gap disparity.”
The current minimum wage in Taiwan is a little above NT$21,000 (US$640) per month, while the starting wage for a fresh graduate in NT$25,175 per month. But housing prices in certain parts of Taiwan are among the highest in the world, and those wanting to buy a house in Taipei must save 15 years worth of wages (more if you are on the minimum wage). With youth unemployment in Taiwan also at a reasonably high 12.88% (as of October 2015), it is no wonder that the youth of Taiwan feel that economic issues are their most pressing concerns.
Unfortunately the Ma administration has done little to address these concerns. While the minimum wage was last increased in July 2015 it is still far too low to meet the actual cost of living. Meanwhile housing prices continue to rise, not helped by a raft of recent measures including the abolishment of the “543 Condition” (a law which regulated the ownership of foreign buyers in Taiwan). This has led to a widening gap between the wealthy older generation and the increasingly impoverished youth.
The second major conclusion was that the attitude of the youth to politics is neither defined by ethnicity nor by whether they vote “blue” or “green” (KMT and DPP respectively). The current young generation was born after Taiwan democratized in the late 1980s and has lived through a period marked by a rising sense of Taiwanese identity. For most young people, they see no contradiction between speaking Mandarin, singing songs in Hokkien or eating Hakka food.
When it comes to engaging with politics, young people once again chose issues that directly affect them instead of voting along (almost irrelevant) ethnic lines. As Rae, 28, says, “national identity always becomes an issue during elections.”
According to Peter, the identity issue becomes so debilitating that, “Taiwan as a country can’t confront any problem together. Politicians only care about how to get the Hakka, 本省人 [those born in Taiwan prior to the arrival of the KMT in 1949] or 外省人 [those who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949] vote.”
For Choya, 29, from Taipei, “election time is always like a war between the two [major] parties who fight for the votes of the different ethnic groups but loose sight of the larger political issues facing Taiwan.”
Jun sums it up, describing it as a “fierce fight of blue vs. green.”
Such an ingrained bipolarization of the political orthodoxy in Taiwan could explain why the small parties have increasingly attracted the support of young people by offering a new vision of Taiwan that is free from the delimitations of the past.
The rise of the small parties also coincides with the wider narrative of disillusionment with the two major parties in Taiwan. When asked what the word “politics” conjures in their minds, the response was overwhelming negative.
“Politics is an expensive business to be in and corruption will always exist,” says Choya.
Jimmy concurs. In his eyes, politics in Taiwan are “dirty.”
“Politics is the exchange of personal interests, with politicians acting as salespeople selling ideas to the public,” says Leon, 30, from Taipei.
Jun notes that in an ideal world politicians would work toward realizing the maxim that “all men are created equal” (人生而平等). But Jun notes that in the current environment, “politicians are only working towards serving the interests of big business.”
Still, just because they currently hold a dim view of politics does not mean that young people have completely given up on the political institutions of Taiwan. Leon still sees politics as “the fundamental way to resolve problems.” As for Peter, he encourages other young people to pay attention, understand and care about the political situation within Taiwan.
“Politics are crucial to each and every one of us because they have an impact on every part of our lives,” he says.
The young voters of Taiwan are not capricious, apathetic, or ill informed. They have a detailed understanding of the politics of Taiwan and take a keen interest in seeing the election of politicians who will work to making Taiwan a better place. While youth have long been ignored in Taiwan, this election marks the start of a new era of politics here, where the youth voice will finally be heard.
Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is an Australian student, currently studying in Taiwan.