This year, a whole new group of Taiwanese have reached the age of 20. There is nothing special with this per se, except that there is a presidential election next year and all eyes are on the latest wave of people who are going to vote for the first time.
According to the Central Election Commission, there will be 1.29 million first-time voters for the Jan. 16 presidential election — they were too young to vote four years ago. The number represents 6.8 percent of the total electorate. First-time voters, numbering more than 1 million people, are expected to play a crucial role in the outcome of the election.
Every presidential election has been the same in this regard. There has been a new group of first-time voters who have accumulated over the previous four years, during which they have reached the voting age. By the time of the election, they are anywhere from 20 to 24 years old. Academia, the public and politicians have taken note of them, and each presidential candidate is aware that they must sway them to their side one way or the other.
However, in the past four presidential elections, first-time voters have not really played a decisive role in the outcome. There are two reasons for this.
First, voter turnout among first-time voters in the past has not been high. Second, in the last few elections, they have not had a clear political orientation, and they have not become a force for consolidating democracy.
However, there is reason to believe that in the coming presidential election, the current crop of first-time voters might make a difference. It is therefore important to ask whether the newly eligible voters in the previous presidential elections over the past 16 years have had a different political orientation.
The difference between the first-time voters this time, compared with those who came before them, will be clearer if looked at from three different aspects: age, generation and era.
People in the 20 to 24 age group typically have a certain set of social characteristics. They are curious and competitive, can be dissatisfied and indignant, favor the new over the old, gravitate toward “cool” things, like to interact with others, aspire to imitate their idols, can be rebellious, are prone to venting their anger, and sometimes seek change. The current crop of new voters is no exception.
In the same way, over the past 16 years, the nation has had other groups of new voters casting their ballots at presidential elections. However, before these groups became intellectually engaged and politically aware, Taiwan had already embarked upon the transition to democracy, with the first direct presidential election in 1996. As a result, they were spared the experience of the White Terror orchestrated by the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and did not have to live through the suppression of freedom on campuses or the annihilation of academic autonomy.
They are too young to have witnessed the struggle of Taiwan’s civil society or that of the dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) political opposition movement, and they were not there when people were calling for democracy or when martial law was finally lifted.
They never had to live under the authoritarian regime of late presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). They take democracy for granted and all they see of the KMT is the streamlined, beautified, sanitized post-democratization version.
They were idealists affronted by the merest suggestion of political corruption, or cynics all too quick to say that politics is a nasty business, and that both the KMT and the opposition are rotten to the core. The result was that previous rounds of first-time voters had a tendency to avoid political issues and chose not to vote, for what was the point? They rejected politics and did not trust the election process.
However, with last year’s Sunflower movement, Taiwanese politics entered a new era. This “new politics” is the young generation starting to care about the roots of democracy and about the nation’s future. They are no longer willing to let the KMT get away with its manipulation of power and the derision it has for the law, taking the country to the brink of a democratic crisis and damaging the nation’s dignity, nor are they willing to leave the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to fight the KMT alone.
Being more politically engaged, many young Taiwanese are actively entering politics. This is the new politics and it is also the kind of politics that young people want to have.
The Sunflower movement seeded the drubbing the KMT received in the Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections last year and the momentum created by the two events mobilized high-school students this summer to protest curriculum guideline changes the government wanted to introduce.
It is because of the advent of this new political era that in the presidential election the nation will see a continuation of the changed expectations and momentum brought about by the active participation of the young people who became eligible to vote in the nine-in-one elections.
The difference in this set of newly eligible voters is not due to their age, nor is it entirely because of the generation in which they have grown up in: Taiwan has entered a new era and the political character of this new group has changed accordingly. They will bring to the presidential election a new resolve to stand up to save their nation through active participation in the political process.
Michael Hsiao is director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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