Young, Taiwanese and Political: Youth Politics in 2018

Young, Taiwanese and Political: Youth Politics in 2018
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

There are signs that the wave of energy among young voters and politicians captured by the Sunflower Movement is starting tom break through into a new kind of politics.

As Taiwan prepares to hit the polls, it is worth asking what happened to the surge in political energy among young Taiwanese that erupted in the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

Hsueh Cheng-yi (薛呈懿) was elected as a member of the Yilan County Council in 2014 when she was just 24 years old, in the process becoming the youngest council member in the whole of Taiwan.

When asked about events four years ago, Hsueh said she believes that the atmosphere surrounding the 318 elections, as the polls following the March 18, 2014 student protests are known was particularly special. "When you see young people talking about social reforms, everyone felt an anticipation for the future," she recalls. "Or in 2016, who could have imagined that the day before Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected, [Taiwanese K-pop singer] Tzuyu (周子瑜) would give a public apology [for offending China by appearing on stage with an ROC flag]? The night before the election, there were so many young voters tying to return home to vote that the coach stations were absolutely bursting!"

The atmosphere surrounding the current elections does not have the same fever pitch, or visceral demonstration of youth involvement, but the fact is these elections are the first in decades to show an uptick in the number of young candidates standing for election, and the number of youngsters on the ballot papers reached an all-time peak this year. In the month prior to the Nov. 24 elections, a wave of fresh new faces has appeared in local neighborhoods on flags and banners, as Taiwan’s "second generation" of politicians make themselves known. They hail from all walks of life, and on social media there has been an explosion of influential young people, young opinion leaders, internet celebrities, and even those with no political background, all expressing their views and announcing their candidacies.

Digging through the election data of the past 20 years, we can see the distribution of candidate ages over the last five elections in the chart below:

Credit: If Lin
Source: Central Election Commission and respective Municipal Election Committees

We can clearly see that, though there have been many candidates in the 30-39 and 40-49 age ranges since 1994, the proportion has decreased significantly in the past 20 years, and conversely, candidates in the 50-59 and 60-69 ranges have increased year-on-year, with members in the 70-79 range now accounting for a significant proportion. From this, we can be confident in assuming that a large group of candidates have not been challenged over the last 20 years, and have just been getting older.

This year, however, is looking very different. If we go a little deeper and compare the age distributions of the candidates in the six city-municipals with the numbers from 2014, as in the chart below, we will discover that the number of candidates under the age of 40 has increased from 16.1 percent to 22.7 percent, an increase of more than 6 percent:

Credit: If Lin
Source: Central Election Commission

Fresh power structures

The New Power Party (NPP), officially formed in 2015, quickly became the third largest party in the Legislative Yuan. Even though it has never participated in local elections, the NPP has still managed to offer strong support and financial backing to their candidates this year. Aside from having a host of young candidates, the party also offers a refreshing open process when it comes to putting its people forward. There is no primary election system within the party, and there is only one nominated candidate for each constituency, s there will not be a conflict of votes within the party – in marked contrast to the atmosphere that greets young candidates trying to force there way onto the scene in either the DPP or KMT.

But the "youth in politics" movement is not limited to those running in the elections, or to those that witnessed the Sunflower Movement, and voted in the 318 elections. There is another group of young people who have, in a broad sense, "immersed themselves in politics." For example, the "Hsin-tien Stay Association" of New Taipei City, as well as the NGOs "Tainan sprout" and "Cosmopolitan Culture Action Taichung," all of which are local organizations established in 2016 made up of young people in their 30s trying to make a difference.

So then, what are the differences in values between this broad group of "youth in politics" and the "old guard?" After visiting all three of these organizations, interviewing Hsueh Cheng-yi in Yilan, and then talking with Chen Huimin (陳惠敏), the Secretary-General of the NPP, about how the party selects their candidates, we have summarized our findings:

1. No burden: no fear of raising issues

Hsueh Cheng-yi in 2014, then [Social Democratic Party] candidates Poyu Tseng (曾柏瑜) and Miao Poya (苗博雅) in 2016, were all willing to engage in politics even though they had no political background or backing from political parties. For example, in 2014 Hsueh Cheng-yi, ‘only’ spent NT$1 million (US$32,300), 40 percent of which was accounted as personnel expenses. After being elected, she has not backed down from any of the issues she campaigned on, such as the use of farmland, or her opposition to the Taipei-Yilan direct rail line.

When we interviewed the NPP's Chen Huimin, she added, "We hope that when candidates make judgements or decisions, that they won’t feel any burden, and that includes burdens from inter-personal relationships or social pressures of how they should act. Usually, young people naturally feel these burdens less."

However, she also stressed that age itself is not a standard, as "many people are young yet have a mentality that is closer to old-school politics. Many have mingled with our members in previous political parties, or organizations, and might feel that they know how to lead an organization, or how to talk politics and know how to get elected, so they want to come in with all guns blazing, but the New Power Party has rejected many of these friends."

2. Local immersion: don’t play by the old rules

In 2016, after Poyu Tseng lost the election, she didn’t give up and disappear, instead she found a job and continued to immerse herself in her chosen constituency of Xindian in New Taipei. Then, six months later, she established the "Hsin-tien Stay Association," which focuses on local cultural history, long-term elderly care, childcare, supervision of the government, and other socially progressive issues.

In addition to organizing various events and talks, the company also set up a center and grey-hair appreciation club to promote long-term elderly care, and in the last two years, they have had more than a thousand people participate in their events. The fruits of her labor were clear when 11 neighborhood wardens turned out for the launch of her campaign headquarters at the end of September – a rare swell of affirmation for a candidate with no political background.

The "Cosmopolitan Culture Action Taichung" NGO, which was also established in 2016, stimulated citizen participation by initiating the "Cosmopolitan Culture Petition Campaign" to allow democratic discussion and guidance for citizens for drawing up petitions to challenge existing governmental systems.

Further south in Tainan, "Taiwan Sprout" recently released the most comprehensive report on the government in the whole of Taiwan, after the organization’s members volunteered to join government department tours. It also compiled a plan called "Tainan 2040," and hopes to build from the bottom up, offering young people a say in Tainan’s future. Tainan Sprout’s chairperson, Urda Yan asked, “Why don’t we manage these issues better, and first shape a healthy environment for discussion in order to help nurture young people to care about politics?”

3. Open and transparent: insist on the values of progress

The last and most important point is how you execute your projects. During her interview, Hsueh Cheng-yi pointed out that "What the public want now is communication; only after there is a certain degree of acceptance of the difference in values, can there be dialogue. This may be a relatively slow process that won’t have immediate results, but traditional politics often makes decisions in private as all they usually want is political achievements, political praise and the vote."

Chen Huimin also tried to explain this by saying that in the NPP "openness and transparency" is the most important aspect, but that the more "open" you are, the harder it is to focus political resources on a single individual, though it does help to improve the overall political environment. "Therefore, it also needs to be the case as regards the way our candidates go about their work, and this is one aspect they have to adhere to."

It is not difficult to understand that even though the young people have fewer financial resources, they have greater perseverance; they might not be great in politics, but they have plenty of topics they want to discuss, and no longer ask for any ‘top-down’ help; instead they prefer a bottom-up "cohesive consensus." However, a key question is, will Taiwanese voters buy into these new methods and values?

Voting for someone who isn’t a ‘sure-fire bet’

Running for a council seat is not the same as running for a legislative seat, as you can still be elected without receiving the highest number of votes in the constituency. Take for example, the Taipei Songshan/Xinyi District. In 2014, the elected council member with the least amount of votes, received only 13,825 votes, which equated to only 5.74 percent of the total ballots cast.

This shows the NPP’s cunning in hedging their bets: They know they only need 6 percent of the electorate’s support to gain a seat, and have selected only the most populated areas to run in (where the ratio of votes are much lower). In addition, because the NPP actually has a support rate of 9-10 percent in some areas, in theory the chance of gaining at least one seat is very high.

Although this may be the case, Eric Chenhua Yu (俞振華), an associate research fellow of the Election Study Center and jointly appointed as an associate professor of political science at the National Chengchi University, pointed out that just because young candidates attract a large amount of likes and shares on the internet, it doesn’t mean they can rely on those young people to vote for them on the day. There is no guarantee these young voters will actually come out to vote.

According to the 2010 population and housing report from the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics Bureau, although young people aged 20 to 40 accounted for 42 percent of the total voting population at the time, in the 2016 presidential election, the voting rate of under 40’s was close to 50 percent, but for those 40 years old and above, especially those above 60 years old, the voting rate was over 70 percent.

"The whole trend at the moment is not only bad for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), because in the current stale political climate, I am very doubtful about young people actively coming out to vote for specific political parties as they had before," Yu said.

From his analysis, Yu said that young candidates from both the Blue and Green sides now face pressure from internal ticketing, including from incumbent members, whereas the other young candidates are mostly vying for the so-called "anger votes", disaffected voters who are disillusioned or unhappy with either of the two main parties.

According to July’s political party survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, in terms of political identification, the DPP’s highest score was a 51.6 percent back in June 2016, which has now fallen to a historical low of 25.2 percent. The KMT following was at its lowest in May 2016, which has since risen from 16.6 percent to the current 20.7 percent. As for the center and independent candidates; the lowest point was in June 2016 at 27 percent, but that number has skyrocketed to the current historic high of 49.6 percent.

"During these last few years, disaffected voters have indeed increased, but I believe that a large chunk of these "on-the-fence" voters are actually Blue and Green supporters in disguise. It’s more likely that if they really are unhappy, then they just won’t vote, or perhaps some of them will eventually bite the bullet and still show support for their party in the end," he added.

Yu also believes that for those young candidates outside the Blue and Green parties, they must be able to convince this key group of disaffected voters; "if you’re angry with the two major parties, then vote for me as I will make a difference, because I have the ability to win."

However, if before voting, each of us thinks about things like "will this candidate get enough votes," "I shouldn’t waste my vote", instead of "they represent the values that I support, so I will vote for them," then it won’t matter how many more anger votes there are, it will still be impossible for Taiwan to change.

The case of Hsueh Cheng-yi

Credit: The News Lens / Photo by Yang Cheng-yu

To everyone’s surprise, Hsueh Cheng-yi, who turned 28 this year, is vying for the position of Town Mayor of Luodong Township, rather than running for re-election as an Yilan County Councilor. During her campaign she has found that although many people like her in Luodong, the overall feeling is that most of them still question whether this "young party-less candidate, can win a Town Mayor Election after only one term as a councilor?"

"This is a joke right? If this is what you’re really thinking, then it actually means you support me, so why hesitate over that vote?," she asked, adding that most Taiwanese people still vote with the mentality of "following the crowd" – they only want to vote for someone who will win the election, and not just for a person that represents their values and beliefs.

"This type of conformist mentality is the main reason why traditional politics has continued to survive for so long. ‘The candidates most likely to win are either DPP or KMT members. It doesn’t matter what I do, because even if I stay home in bed one of them will get elected.’ Too many people still think like this!"

Hsueh expressed her belief that Taiwanese voters must go back to the most basic ideals of ​​voting, choosing the "right person and the right thing to do." Voting for a candidate based on whether they can win the election should not be the first thing, rather it should be "why are you voting?" Only then, should you think about the candidate's chances of winning, and if it’s low, maybe you should think about what you can do about it?

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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