In the months leading up to a crucial presidential election for Taiwan, candidates have focused on who will be best able to manage the island democracy’s volatile relationship with China, with its concerns about war risks. But at a recent forum in Taipei, young voters instead asked two of the candidates questions about everyday issues like rent, telecommunications scams and the voting age.
This is a revealing summary of the race, the outcome of which will have far-reaching implications for Taiwan. The island is a potential flashpoint between the United States and China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and has signaled it could step up military threats if the Democratic Progressive Party wins.
But many Taiwanese voters, especially those in their 20s and 30s, say they are tired of geopolitics and yearn for a campaign more focused on their national needs. In interviews, they talked about rising housing costs, slow income growth and narrowing career prospects. A considerable number of them have expressed disillusionment with Taiwan’s two dominant parties, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Nationalist Party.
This sentiment has contributed to the rise of a third party: the Taiwan People’s Party, a newcomer that has gained ground in the polls in part by exploiting frustration over fundamental issues, particularly among young people. . Both major parties have also released policy platforms promising to address these concerns.
Who young people ultimately vote for – and how many will vote – could be a crucial factor in deciding the January 13 presidential election. About 70 percent of Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s voted in the 2020 presidential election, a lower proportion than among Taiwanese. middle-aged and older voters, according to official data. People aged 20 to 34 make up a fifth of Taiwan’s population, according to government estimates.
“We are tired of divisions and wars of words between political parties,” said Shen Chih-hsiang, a biotechnology student from Kaohsiung, a southern city traditionally a stronghold of the Democratic Progressive Party. He remained undecided about who to support.
“Instead of worrying about big-power policies that are hard to change,” said Mr. Shen, 25, “I worry more about whether I will be able to find a job and afford a house after obtaining of my diploma. »
The frustrations expressed by Taiwanese voters have highlighted some of the problems the next administration will need to address. Taiwan is renowned for its cutting-edge semiconductor industry. But many young workers in small businesses earn relatively low incomes, and inflation can wipe out any small wage increases. Housing prices have increased in many cities.
Vice President Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, has led the polls for months. But his lead narrowed over Hou Yu-ih, the candidate of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party candidate, has slipped in recent polls but could still play a decisive role in attracting young votes who might once have gone to Mr. Lai’s party.
To increase the opposition’s chances of victory, Mr. Hou and Mr. Ko briefly discussed forming an alliance. But the negotiations collapsed spectacularly late last month.
“Much of the youth support for Ko Wen-je is driven not by real admiration for the man and his policies, but by frustration,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at the National Chengchi University, Taipei. He cited group discussions he had with Taiwanese students.
“The idea that the DPP and the KMT are both equally bad seems to have spread among many young voters,” Professor Nachman said, referring to the two major parties.
In a recent poll by My Formosa, an online magazine, 29 percent of respondents aged 20 to 29 said they supported Mr Ko and his running mate, a drop from the previous poll, while 36 percent supported Mr. Lai. Other polls suggest a similar trend, although experts point out that the results could change in the final weeks of the race.
The rumble of discontent does not mean Taiwanese are dismissive of the risks of conflict with China, said Chang Yu-meng, president of the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy. The group organized the presidential forum last month, where Mr. Lai and Mr. Ko answered questions from young voters.
“I think young people are still very concerned about international issues,” Chang said in an interview after the forum, citing relations with China as an example. “But other than that, they are really concerned about various issues. »
Winning the election would be a watershed moment for the Progressive Democratic Party. Once a scrappy outsider, it was founded in 1986 as a wave of mass protests and democratic activism pushed the Nationalist Party to abandon authoritarian rule. Since Taiwan launched direct presidential elections in 1996, no party has won more than two successive terms.
The Democratic Progressive Party has tended to win a majority of young votes, but after two terms in power under President Tsai Ing-wen, it is no longer a new face. And many young Taiwanese tend to view opposition nationalists as too biased in the past and too attached to China.
“For young people in Taiwan today, the DPP is the establishment,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has long studied Taiwanese politics and conducted interviews with young voters. “Whatever the DPP was going to do for the youth, he should have done it now. There are a lot of young people dissatisfied with the economy.”
Mr. Ko, a surgeon and former mayor of Taipei, jumped into the space created by this discontent. He supported the Democratic Progressive Party earlier in his political rise, but formed the Taiwan People’s Party in 2019 as an alternative to the establishment. At rallies across the island, he has promised to solve housing and economic problems with a pragmatic approach he says he perfected in hospital emergency departments. Mr. Ko and his supporters say he can also thaw relations with China.
“Taiwan has been stagnant for too long and needs change,” said Hsieh Yu-ching, 20, who recently attended a youth rally organized by Mr. Ko.
Lai recently announced a series of youth-friendly policies, promising to improve job opportunities and ease high housing costs. He also announced as his running mate Bi-khim Hsiao, who has been Taiwan’s representative in Washington for more than three years. Ms. Hsiao could generate enthusiasm for Democratic progressives, several experts said.
“I also want to recognize the many national and social challenges our youth face,” Hsiao said at a news conference last month. She promised to do more to address concerns about jobs, housing and the environment.
Parties all face the difficulty of encouraging voters to turn out at the polls. Taiwan’s minimum voting age, 20, is higher than in many other democracies, and people must vote where they are officially registered as residents. For some voters, especially younger ones, this means a long trip back to their hometown.
Millie Lin, who works at a technology company in Taipei and is originally from Tainan, on the other side of the island, said she had not decided whether she would return home to vote on January 13.
“When I see the struggles between political parties,” she says, “I sometimes feel like my vote can’t change anything.”