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What Will the Youth Vote Mean for Taiwan’s Elections?

Tseng Po-yu walks along the narrow sidewalks made dim by the overhead awnings, between the bank of parked motorbikes on one side and the one-room shops and restaurants on the other. Wearing the brightly colored vest of a Taiwanese candidate for public office, into these shops and restaurants she ventures, bowing to the customers and shopkeepers, offering each person a packet of Kleenex with her photograph on it and explaining that she, a member of the Green Party in New Taipei City’s 11th district, would appreciate their vote for national legislature. Most pocket the free tissues and turn back to whatever they are doing. Only a very few offer the encouragement given by one vendor: “Give me some more packets, I’ll help you with publicity,” she says, piling them next to the sweaters she is selling. Tseng bows, her shoulder-length dark-brown hair falling over her face. “Women supporting women! Thank you!” She and her team of four young assistants move on.

They stop at an intersection. Tseng sips water from a bottle, then mounts a small stool, megaphone in hand. After introducing herself, she begins: “We’re of the Strawberry Generation that everyone says cannot endure hardships. But we have already eaten a lot of bitterness… The efforts of the young, and what they reap, don’t match up. Starting salaries for college graduates are what they were 16 years ago…”

Photo Gallery

04.09.14

Sunflower Protestors Open Up

Chien-min Chung
On March 18 some 200 Taiwanese, mostly college students, stormed the offices of Taiwan’s legislature, beginning a protest over a proposed trade agreement between the self-governed island and mainland China, which considers it a “renegade province.”...

Tseng and other young people who participated in the Sunflower Movement—a mass protest last spring against the hurried approval of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China—are now running for elected office. They had occupied Taiwan’s legislature for more than three weeks, and won only the promise that the agreement would be subject to more scrutiny under a cross-strait agreement supervision bill. (Such a bill has not yet been passed.) “We realized we’re still barred from the door,” explained Miao Po-ya, a 28-year-old candidate for the Social Democratic Party. Former Sunflower activists like Tseng and Miao now believe that to advance goals like transparency in government, less dependence on the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), and progressive social and economic policies, they must occupy the legislature not as protesters but as members themselves. In elections on January 16, the same day as Taiwan’s presidential election, they will get the chance.

The 113 members of the Legislative Yuan—sometimes referred to as guohui, or parliament—approve new laws and statutes, as well as the government budget. (The Executive Yuan, headed by the presidentially-appointed premier and staffed by the heads of government ministries and commissions, must submit the budget to the Legislative Yuan every year.) The president finds it far easier, therefore, if the majority of legislators fall into his or her camp. For a long time there was only one camp: that of the Nationalist Party, or KMT, that continued to claim to be the legitimate government of China even after it had lost control of the mainland to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949; in keeping with that history, the KMT leans toward eventual reunification. It is today the dominant party of several in what is known as the “blue” camp, which generally favors closer relations with the mainland. The “green” camp emerged with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, formed in 1986 as the island’s first opposition party), and it along with other “greens” tends to view Taiwan as a distinct nation that should remain separate from China. (As with most political divides, this one can blur sometimes; former president Lee Teng-hui won Taiwan’s first presidential elections under the KMT banner, but his rhetoric was green.)

There has never been a green majority in the nation’s legislature, but that could now change: parties that have emerged since the Sunflower Movement, like the New Power Party, and the Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance to which Tseng Po-yu and Miao Po-ya belong, could help nudge the proportion of green legislators past the halfway mark. “They could form a key minority in the legislature,” says Cheng Ming-te, assistant professor at Taipei Chengshih University of Science and Technology, of the new parties, sometimes called the Third Force. (The term encompasses small parties across the political spectrum, some older than the Sunflower Movement. These include parties that focus on a single issue—like rights for the disabled—and are willing to cooperate with whichever camp helps them.)

According to the Central Election Commission’s website, candidates belonging to at least five of these post-Sunflower Movement green parties are running for legislature. Should enough of them succeed, and if DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen wins the presidency as expected, Taiwan’s new government will little resemble the one that recently sent President Ma Ying-jeou to Singapore to shake hands with his mainland counterpart, Xi Jinping. “The political appeal [of the green Third Force parties] is related to being strongly against mainland Chinese influence, like Occupy Central in Hong Kong,” says Lin Hsiao-ting, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In office, that stance could stall the kinds of trade agreements that sparked the Sunflower Movement in the first place. Tao Yi-feng, associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University, says, “If Tsai Ing-wen wants to pass [the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement], the [Third Force legislators] will probably protest.” She expects similar problems with a second free trade agreement with the P.R.C., the Cross-Strait Goods Trade Agreement, based in part on the new parties’ emphasis on labor and environmental protections. She also foresees clashes over domestic issues like raising taxes on businesses, or increasing the minimum wage. It all depends, of course, on how many seats these candidates are able to win.

Taiwan’s political system throws a bunch of obstacles at Third Force candidates like Tseng and Miao. They face the challenge of a low number of available seats, high costs (including a candidate “deposit” of over $6,000, ostensibly to discourage frivolous campaigns), and Taiwan’s traditional emphasis on personal familiarity and local networks, all of which tend to favor incumbents. “I probably wouldn’t support her,” says one of the shopkeepers after Tseng Po-yu leaves. “I don’t have a clear understanding of her yet.” The Nationalist Party candidate, the voter added, “has deep roots here, and has served many terms.” If Tseng stayed in the area for a while, the shopkeeper allowed, she might consider a change. Staying is exactly what Tseng says she plans to do, building a foundation. Whether such hopes are realistic depends in large part on whether their parties win enough of the vote this time to qualify for government funding, Professor Tao said. But, she acknowledges, “based on the local elections last year”—which resulted in an unexpected defeat for the Nationalist Party and highlighted the new power of the Third Force—“we cannot underestimate the power of the Internet [to mobilize voters].” This, perhaps, is the one way in which young candidates enjoy a networking head-start over their elders: through Facebook, LINE, and other social media platforms.

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Taiwan’s Election: A Photo Gallery

By Paul Ratje
  • A January 10 rally in Zhubei City for the Minkuotang, a party founded in March 2015 by former Kuomingtang representative Hsu Hsin-ying.
    A January 10 rally in Zhubei City for the Minkuotang, a party founded in March 2015 by former Kuomingtang representative Hsu Hsin-ying.
  • Campaigners in Hsinchu City prepare for a street rally for the New Power Party, which emerged after the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and advocates for political liberties, universal human rights, and Taiwanese independence.
    Campaigners in Hsinchu City prepare for a street rally for the New Power Party, which emerged after the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and advocates for political liberties, universal human rights, and Taiwanese independence.
  • Wang Bao-xuan, the candidate representing the union of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, gathers with supporters around a teddy bear called “Nüyingxiong,” a mascot for a protest against an expansion of Taoyuan International Airport that would displace 40,000 farmers.
    Wang Bao-xuan, the candidate representing the union of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, gathers with supporters around a teddy bear called “Nüyingxiong,” a mascot for a protest against an expansion of Taoyuan International Airport that would displace 40,000 farmers.
  • Candidate Hsu Hsin-ying at a rally in Zhubei County on January 10. Hsu left the Kuomingtang less than one year ago to found the Minkuotang.
    Candidate Hsu Hsin-ying at a rally in Zhubei County on January 10. Hsu left the Kuomingtang less than one year ago to found the Minkuotang.
  • Li, a Tsai Ying-wen presidential campaign worker, empties piggy banks filled with donations collected for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at the party’s headquarters in Taipei on January 5.
    Li, a Tsai Ying-wen presidential campaign worker, empties piggy banks filled with donations collected for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at the party’s headquarters in Taipei on January 5.
  • DPP supporters rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung. Tsai is widely expected to win the election. She would be the first woman to become Taiwan’s president.
    DPP supporters rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung. Tsai is widely expected to win the election. She would be the first woman to become Taiwan’s president.
  • Supporters attend a Tsai Ying-wen rally in Zhudong, Hsinchu County. Tsai and her party, the DPP, pledge to lessen the island’s dependence on trade with China.
    Supporters attend a Tsai Ying-wen rally in Zhudong, Hsinchu County. Tsai and her party, the DPP, pledge to lessen the island’s dependence on trade with China.
  • A boy shields his ears from the noise of the crowd at a DPP rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung.
    A boy shields his ears from the noise of the crowd at a DPP rally for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in the Shalu district of Taichung.
  • Chang An-lo, a.k.a. the “White Wolf,” right, a former Bamboo Union triad boss, at an August rally across the street from the Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE). Now the leader of the China Unification Promotion Party, Chang stood in protest against students who occupied the MOE, scolding them for being pro-Japanese.
    Chang An-lo, a.k.a. the “White Wolf,” right, a former Bamboo Union triad boss, at an August rally across the street from the Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE). Now the leader of the China Unification Promotion Party, Chang stood in protest against students who occupied the MOE, scolding them for being pro-Japanese.
  • Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen says farewell to supporters after addressing a crowd in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
    Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen says farewell to supporters after addressing a crowd in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
  • Supporters attend a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
    Supporters attend a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
  • Supporters wait for a DPP rally to begin in the Shalu district of Taichung.
    Supporters wait for a DPP rally to begin in the Shalu district of Taichung.
  • Supporters’ messages left for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen on a wall at the headquarters of her Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei.
    Supporters’ messages left for presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen on a wall at the headquarters of her Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei.
  • Nellie Shen, 73, has lived in the United States for years, but returned to Taiwan for the 2016 election.
    Nellie Shen, 73, has lived in the United States for years, but returned to Taiwan for the 2016 election.
  • A campaign worker rigs a loudspeaker atop the car of Legislative Yuan candidate Zhou Fang-ru in Taipei.
    A campaign worker rigs a loudspeaker atop the car of Legislative Yuan candidate Zhou Fang-ru in Taipei.
  • Minkuotang supporters young and old wait on the edge of a rally in Zhubei City.
    Minkuotang supporters young and old wait on the edge of a rally in Zhubei City.
  • Political advertisements appear everywhere during election season. Here, a bus in Taipei displays Tsai Ying-wen endorsing parliamentary candidate Xiao Ya-tan.
    Political advertisements appear everywhere during election season. Here, a bus in Taipei displays Tsai Ying-wen endorsing parliamentary candidate Xiao Ya-tan.
  • A crowd assembles at a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
    A crowd assembles at a Minkuotang rally in Zhubei City.
  • A Minkuotang rally-goer takes a cigarette break in Zhubei City.
    A Minkuotang rally-goer takes a cigarette break in Zhubei City.
  • A DPP campaign worker sweeps the street after a rally for Legislative Yuan candidate Zheng Yong-jin and presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.
    A DPP campaign worker sweeps the street after a rally for Legislative Yuan candidate Zheng Yong-jin and presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen in Zhudong, Hsinchu County.

The political awakening of youth in Taiwan was driven as much by practical frustrations as by political ideals. “I can’t buy an apartment here by working hard,” Miao Po-ya told the crowd at one of her campaign events in Taipei, not far from her parents’ home. Financial insecurity has discouraged the young from marriage; Taiwan’s birth rate is now one of the world’s lowest. Miao and the other Sunflower activists-turned-candidates emphasize economic inequality and youth empowerment in their campaigns, and they support diversifying trade to reduce dependence on Beijing. They will not win the “air war,” Tseng Po-yu told me—the loud, expensive mass media fray. But the “ground war”—sweeping down street after street—is at least one they can join without great expense. “I tell people [I’m spending] my dowry—all the New Year’s money and red envelopes that I’ve gotten since I was a child and my mother saved up for me,” Tseng says.

“Why not just join the DPP?” I posed this question to another Third Force legislative candidate, the New Power Party’s Freddy Lim. (The New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party emerged from a split in the Taiwan Citizen Union.) Lim and other New Power Party candidates had attended a Tsai Ing-wen rally in Taipei in October, basking in the party’s power to draw crowds. The rally featured adorable pastel-colored “pig” trucks with snouts on their fenders and folded-down ears, speeches with musical soundtracks (swelling strings, a dirge when Tsai’s 2012 defeat was mentioned), and most importantly, news cameras galore.

Lim, the relaxed, charismatic frontman of the heavy-metal band Cthonic, answered with an anecdote from the Sunflower Movement. “When some DPP politicians showed up to offer their support, protesters cursed them as xiaofei,” or “consumers” meaning that they were using for their own benefit, something that wasn’t theirs. They saw the politicians as poseurs, exploiting their movement for publicity. “Without the formation of new parties, some young people might not have gotten involved at all,” Lim said. For now, these earlier criticisms have given way to cooperation for the shared goal of a green majority. The green Third Force candidates are given publicity at events like Tsai’s campaign launch, and the DPP has chosen not to compete against them or some independent candidates in some districts where they could win. (There are limits to pan-green solidarity. The DPP also supports some blue Third Force candidates they believe can defeat KMT candidates. “The goal is to erode the KMT’s voter base,” Dr. Lin explains.) But despite the shared coloring, smaller parties insist that they are separate.

Paul Ratje

Huang Gui-Li, a campaign worker for the Minkuotang party, shows some holiday cheer on Christmas day as he prepares to distribute material to elementary students about holiday spirit written by Hsinchu County parliament candidate Qiu Jing-Ya in Zhubei City, Taiwan.

The greatest difficulty for these green Third Force candidates, who speak enthusiastically of a clean, transparent “new politics,” may be persuading voters that there is such a thing. A middle-aged woman in Keelung told me darkly that “failed politicians” are using these naïve young candidates to regain influence. Taiwanese have plenty of reasons to be cynical about politicians and elections. After 50 years of Japanese colonization ended in 1945, many had believed that the Nationalist Party, allied with the United States, would establish representative government on the island. But the local elections that were conducted—a nod to being “Free China,” not the Communist aberration across the straits—were heavily rigged, and the practice of vote-buying persists in some areas. Faith has been broken too many times for it to be granted easily to the young Third Force candidates. “We had such high hopes of [President] Chen Shui-bian,” the woman continued, referring the country’s first DPP president, who served from 2000 to 2008. “He was a native Taiwanese, one of our own.” But Chen, shining young lawyer-hero of the democratization movement, whose Democratic Progressive Party had condemned Nationalist Party corruption, was jailed in 2009 on charges ranging from embezzling government funds to accepting bribes. Such, many believe, is the nature of politics.

But things do change. Tseng Po-yu’s grandfather was imprisoned under the Nationalist dictatorship, his private tutoring of a neighbor mistaken for a Communist “reading group.” Tseng’s grandmother threatened to sever contact with her unless she dropped out of the Sunflower Movement, convinced that her granddaughter would suffer. And yet, here Tseng is, a candidate in a free, multiparty election. The older generation is skeptical because of its experiences, but those same experiences give the young hope. Past efforts made theirs possible. “Political work is long-term work,” Tseng said, when asked what she would do if she lost. “I am very confident I can win,” she added, but one loss is not the end. “People might suggest switching to a district where it’s easier to get elected, but … there’s already a group of people here who trust me. Isn’t running off to another district a kind of betrayal?”

At the intersection, parents hurry across, gripping their children’s hands. “It’s not because your child isn’t trying hard enough,” Tseng continues. “It’s because our economy has deteriorated… It is precisely because I’m young I understand what young people are facing…” A DPP publicity van drives by, playing the candidate’s recorded message through loudspeakers. Tseng’s speech ends. She pauses, then begins again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said candidates in Taiwan wear “pink” vests, but they wear brightly colored vests of all different colors; the earlier version also mistranslated the word “xiaofei.” It has now been corrected.