The 3.5 milion voters in their 20s are a critical constituency in Taiwan’s presidential elections in January, and they have a message for the candidates seeking their support: Give us more about jobs and wages and less about ties with Beijing.
Political debate in Taiwan has traditionally been dominated by the question of Taiwan’s identity and relations with China, but the younger generation is less interested in issues of identity than their parents, and become irritated when politicians focus on that instead of more immediate problems: low wages, a weak job market and expensive housing.
“I think national identity is important, but the economy is more important. The issue of national identity will be resolved over time. There are more pressing day-to-day problems,” said Chao Po-sun, 27, a life insurance salesman.
The power of Chao and others in Taiwan’s youngest voting bloc is significant. They make up a fifth of voters, according to the National Statistics Bureau. They also like to vote. Four out of five went to the polls in past elections.
So this poll may come down to a generation of voters who are disaffected, relatively well educated and worried about their futures and the economy. And unlike older voters, they are not as settled in their views.
With opinion polls showing close race between the two candidates, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will need to court the youth vote.
“Other voting groups may have already formed their opinions, but young people are new voters who can be persuaded. So getting their support is, of course, very important,” said Sidney Lin, deputy director of the DPP’s Youth Group.
One DPP strategy, according to Lin, is to hit the streets, organizing youth-oriented events and spread the message. Both candidates have Facebook “fan pages” to attract youth online.
Like young voters in South Korea, who recently swung Seoul’s mayoral election by turning to an independent candidate en masse, Taiwan’s youth voters are wired and can communicate political views, and politicians’ gaffes, rapidly through the Internet.
“Taiwan and South Korea are two places where young people are dissatisfied. The current governments aren’t particularly paying attention to [them]. And they are similar in using social media,” said Bruce Jacobs, a professor Asian Studies at Monash University.
Chang Fan-lo, a 27-year-old accountant at chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, who supports neither party, illustrates the challenge for political leaders.
“I think the KMT and DPP are both a little self-absorbed,” Chang said. “Too many people are unemployed. You can’t make any money. Housing prices go up but wages don’t.”
At close to 7 percent, unemployment among 25 to 29 year olds is well ahead of the overall jobless rate of just over 4 percent in September.
And the average starting salary for college graduates is around NT$24,000 a month, only just above the legal minimum wage of NT$17,880. Average house prices, meanwhile, reached 11 times average income last year.
“For a long time, young people in Taiwan felt school was really hard, but there was a reward at the end of it. For today’s youth, it’s not clear that there’s anything waiting for them at the end,” said Shelly Rigger, professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College in the US.
Thus far, neither party has been particularly effective at courting the youth vote.
The DPP was able to seize the early imitative in campaigning by attacking Ma’s economic record and proposing policies that focused on job creation, building the domestic economy and a fair distribution of resources.
Ma, in response, pledged to put the economy first if reelected, promising higher incomes and measures to keep property prices affordable. He has sought out industry leaders for advice on economic policy during the current downturn.
A recent opinion poll by the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) shows that 33.14 pct of voters age 20 to 29 support Tsai and 26.74 percent Ma.
That may be because the debate once again reverted to the old script, with China relations in the starring role.
“We still see the traditional two-camp campaigns. The focus has turned to cross-strait relations again,” said Eric Yu (俞振華), of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University.
Last month Ma firmly put the cross-strait issue back in the frame when he said there could be a peace treaty with China in 10 years.
Even on their Facebook pages, Ma and Tsai largely address the issue of China. Recently, Ma wrote on Facebook that Taiwan’s most important role was as peacemaker, continuing to improve cross-strait relations.
To which one Facebook user commented: “First, think of the lives of ordinary people. Only after our lives are stable can we focus on other things.”
Additional reporting by staff writer
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