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Youth leaders speak out as presidential hopefuls court young voters

12/14/2023 10:57 PM
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The Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy and student groups launch a campaign in Taipei on Dec. 8, 2023 to raise fund to help students travel back home so they can cast their ballots in the Jan. 13 presidential and legislative elections. CNA file photo
The Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy and student groups launch a campaign in Taipei on Dec. 8, 2023 to raise fund to help students travel back home so they can cast their ballots in the Jan. 13 presidential and legislative elections. CNA file photo

Taipei, Dec. 14 (CNA) With just one month remaining until the Jan. 13 elections, Taiwan's presidential contenders and youth leaders have identified low wages, high rent and house prices, and cross-strait issues as the main concerns among young prospective voters, who will play a pivotal role in determining the election outcome.

In a report published on Dec. 4, the New York Times dubbed "frustrated young voters" the "wild cards" in the Jan. 13 elections.

According to statistics released by the Central Election Commission (CEC), eligible voters aged 20 to 40 constitute 25 percent of the 19.5 million electorate, of which prospective first-time voters account for 1.02 million. In the 2020 presidential election, about 70 percent of Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s voted, the data showed.

Eight years after it became Taiwan's ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has articulated its stance on cross-strait and LGBTQ issues, but its understanding of the plight of young people regarding housing and commuting appears to be lacking, said Chang Yu-meng (張育萌), who heads the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy (TYAD).

Lin Ting-chun (林鼎鈞), head of Taiwan Junior Chamber International, noted that boosting income, being able to afford a home, and worrying about war breaking out in the Taiwan Strait were atop the list of issues at the fore of the minds of voters under the age of 40.

Spurring voter turnout

Chang said, however, that interest in national affairs does not necessarily translate to support for certain candidates or voter turnout, as the potentially high cost of commuting to one's hometown to vote also needs to be taken into consideration.

Furthermore, some young people have also said that they will vote -- or not vote -- based on how strongly they identify with the candidates' stance on certain issues rather than the party that nominated them.

As such, candidates need to focus on putting forward more youth-friendly policy proposals if they want to garner support from younger voters, he said.

Echoing Chang's views, Lin said that despite all the hullaballoo in the media about the elections capturing people's attention, turnout among potential young voters will depend on whether they believe any candidate can actually improve their quality of life.

It's still the economy

Meager wages and soaring house prices have left many young people disillusioned about their future and caused them to become indifferent toward politics, a source within the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) said.

Young people's lives have not improved under the DPP administration, which has offered the KMT an opportunity to entice young voters by crafting policy proposals favorable to them, the source said.

Polls have indicated that the KMT has suffered when it comes to gaining support among younger voters, an area where the nascent Taiwan People's Party (TPP) is appearing to shine.

A member of KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih's (侯友宜) campaign, who asked not to be named, said that policy proposals unveiled by Hou to subsidize mortgages for first-time buyers, including a proposal to waive the down payment, and provide more social housing appeared to gain traction among young people.

Lee Li-chen (李利貞), a spokesperson for KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih's (侯友宜) campaign, said rather than investing so much in public infrastructure, as the DPP has, the government should focus on investing in young people because that is an investment in the country's future.

To that aim, Lee said, Hou and his running mate Jaw Shau-kong (趙少康) have dished out well-developed policy proposals, some of which Jaw attempted to convey to young voters during a talk on Dec. 13 at National Chengchi University.

However, according to a campaign staff member for DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (賴清德), the Lai camp is well aware of the risk associated with disgruntled young voters.

"Young people are dissatisfied. We saw that, and we felt that," they said.

In light of this, they said, the Lai camp has unveiled policy proposals designed to help young people, including increasing subsidies for tuition at private universities and housing rent, raising subsidies for infants enrolled at daycare centers, and building more social housing.

Meanwhile, TPP presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has also proposed policies that seek to solve housing problems and tackle low birth rates, including adding social housing units until they reach 5 percent of the total number of housing units in Taiwan, providing low-interest mortgages, and increasing subsidies for expectant mothers and parents with young children, TPP spokesman Adam Lee (李頂立) said.

Cross-strait relations

Turning to cross-strait relations, which have traditionally been a major point of contention in Taiwan's elections, discussants expressed conflicting views.

The DPP secured a landslide victory in the 2020 presidential election on a groundswell of anti-China sentiment and support for protecting Taiwan's sovereignty, Chang said.

Four years later, he said, young people in Taiwan have become more concerned with Taiwan's defense and its relations with China due to the reinstatement of the one-year conscription and the ongoing wars between Israel and Hamas, and Ukraine and Russia.

Cross-strait issues were "by far and away" the issue young Taiwanese people cared most about, as evidenced in the widespread interest shown at a recent forum held by the TYAD, he said.

However, Lin said it would be tricky to predict which candidate will be most successful in maintaining the "status quo" and safeguarding Taiwan's democratic system -- two things he says are priorities of most young people.

Adam Lee, however, argued that cross-strait issues are taking a backseat to economic issues such as stagnant wages, exorbitant house prices and a labor shortage.

Whichever candidate convinces voters of their ability to address these concerns is likely to emerge victorious, Lee said.

Courting young voters

Meanwhile, to better engage young voters, the KMT has been uploading more video clips online to help articulate policy proposals and upping its social media game in a bid to appeal to young voters, according to a staff member on Hou's campaign.

On the other hand, Lai has been appearing on online shows hosted by influencers, and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who enjoys wide popularity among young people -- thanks to her perceived warmth and ability to channel narratives that resonate with them -- have been attending "quiet" campaign events that are appealing to young voters, according to a source within the DPP.

Wu Yi-syuan (吳怡萱), a spokesperson for Ko's campaign, said elected TPP officials and party officials have been giving roadside speeches in commercial districts and outside train stations that are seeking to address the concerns of young voters, in particular those related to the cost of living.

At the same time, Wu said, Ko has been appearing at temples and making speeches promoting his campaign platform to drum up support at the grassroots level, as well as going on influencers' shows in hopes of reaching predominantly young audiences who are tricky to reach through political talk shows or more traditional news platforms.

(By Kao Hua-chien, Yeh Su-ping, Liu Kuan-ting, Kuo Chien-Shen and Sean Lin)

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