Battle for hearts and minds of young voters may prove crucial in Taiwan election

Lawrence Chung

Chemistry student Chen Pin-yu will be voting for the first time when Taiwan heads to the polls next month, and she has already made her choice.

“I’ll be giving my vote to Tsai Ing-wen because she is more capable of defending Taiwan than Han Kuo-yu or James Soong [Chu-yu],” the 21-year-old who studies at Tamkang University in Taipei said.

Chen was concerned about the self-ruled island’s fate if President Tsai was not re-elected.

“Given their pro-China stand, I believe Han and Soong would turn a blind eye to Beijing eroding our sovereignty if either of them were elected president,” she said.

Young voters like Chen will be crucial for the three presidential candidates on January 11, analysts say, in an election seen as a choice between protecting the island’s sovereignty and keeping cross-strait relations stable. They say that with 1.2 million people eligible to vote for the first time, winning the hearts and minds of those aged between 20 and 23 will be key in a race that is being closely watched by both Beijing and Washington.

The opinion polls have put incumbent Tsai way ahead of her rivals – populist Kaohsiung mayor Han and former premier Soong.

Tsai has played up a “sense of crisis” that the democratic island of 23 million people risks being swallowed up by mainland China if she is not returned for a second term. But she has also sought to position herself as an open-minded leader on issues such as LGBT rights – Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage earlier this year – and analysts say that has won her support among first-time voters.

Supporters react as President Tsai Ing-wen attends a campaign rally last weekend. Tsai has played up a “sense of crisis” over Taiwan’s fate if she is not re-elected. Photo: Reuters

Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, had 68.2 per cent support from such voters in the latest poll by the Cross-Strait Policy Association, a private research agency in Taipei, on Wednesday. Mainland-friendly Han, of the main opposition Kuomintang party, had just 11.7 per cent backing and People First Party’s Soong was just behind on 11.3 per cent.

The Hong Kong factor

Another first-timer, 22-year-old Chang Pei-chin, also plans to vote for Tsai. Chang, who studies medicine at Chang Gung University in the northern city of Taoyuan, was worried about political unrest breaking out in Taiwan as it has in Hong Kong.

“I feel sad and sorry about what’s happening in Hong Kong, where many people have been arrested because they are fighting for democracy,” she said. “Just as President Tsai has said, Taiwan would become like Hong Kong if we accepted the ‘one country, two systems’ model.”

Tsai has sought to establish herself as a defender of Taiwan sovereignty after she rejected mainland President Xi Jinping’s proposal in January for cross-strait unification talks under the one country, two systems framework like the one used in Hong Kong and Macau.

Tsai Ing-wen has sought to establish herself as a defender of Taiwan sovereignty. Photo: AFP

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must return to the mainland’s fold, by force if necessary. It has ramped up pressure on the island since Tsai took office in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle, suspending official exchanges, staging war games nearby and poaching seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies.

Unlike her main challenger Han – who has been reluctant to comment on the situation in Hong Kong – Tsai was quick to voice her support for those protesting against a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. The protests have broadened into an anti-government movement that shows no sign of abating after more than six months.

Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu’s support for Hong Kong’s protests came too late, according to analysts. Photo: AFP

Han, seen as Beijing’s favoured candidate in the presidential race because of his conciliatory stand towards the mainland, has meanwhile come under fire for not showing concern for the plight of Hongkongers. He expressed support for the pro-democracy movement later in his campaign, but it came too late, according to analysts.

Journalism professor Peng Huai-en, from Shih Hsin University in Taipei, also said it was a mistake for Han to run for president just a few months after he was elected mayor of Kaohsiung in November 2018 because it lost him the trust of many young people.

“That dealt him a serious blow,” Peng said, adding that many Taiwanese were also unimpressed with his response to the Hong Kong issue.

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In contrast, supporting the protests has helped Tsai to gain young voters’ trust, analysts say.

“Her strategy of playing up the sense of crisis – that Taiwan could end up like Hong Kong or be taken over by mainland China if she loses the election – has worked well among young voters,” said Yen Chen-shen, a senior researcher at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei.

“This is especially true for first-time voters, who tend to be more idealistic and Taiwan-centric.”

That was reflected in a survey of more than 800 first-time voters conducted in November by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly. It found 83.1 per cent of respondents identified as Taiwanese, while just 1.1 per cent considered themselves Chinese and 11.5 per cent believed they were both Taiwanese and Chinese.

Of those surveyed, 3.1 per cent supported cross-strait unification, 59.7 per cent wanted to keep the status quo and 35 per cent were in favour of Taiwanese independence.

The three issues they cared about most were threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty at 31.8 per cent, low salaries at 24.7 per cent, and disinformation at 24.3 per cent.

“Compared with previous opinion polls, the survey showed that more first-time voters were identifying themselves as Taiwanese and tending to reject cross-strait unification, choosing instead to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty,” said Ho Li-ping, general manager of Taipei-based pollster Focus Survey Research, who was involved in the Business Weekly study.

She also said young people in Taiwan were more likely to vote differently from their parents than before. “In the past, at least 70 per cent of first-time voters held the same political views as their parents,” Ho said. “But today, 50 per cent of them hold different views, meaning more new voters will be voting for the candidates they like instead of the ones their parents choose.”

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However, that did not necessarily mean they would also vote for the political parties those candidates were affiliated with, she added.

That was true for Hsu Li-chieh, a 22-year-old hospital intern in Kaohsiung.

“I’ll vote for Tsai because I believe she will do a good job in defending Taiwan, but I’ll also vote for the New Power Party because they are more aggressive in pushing for young people’s rights and benefits,” Hsu said.

In addition to the presidential poll, voters will cast two ballots for the legislative elections next month – one for a candidate and one for a political party, to determine how many additional seats the parties get in the legislature. Parties that receive more than 5 per cent of the total vote will be eligible for the so-called at-large seats.

Striking a chord

Journalism professor Peng said candidates would need to use certain issues to strike a chord with young voters and win their support. “Young people tend to vote in line with their likings or feelings,” Peng said.

That tactic worked for Han last year, when he won the mayoral race for Kaohsiung in a landslide on a promise to bring prosperity to the southern port city so that young people did not have to go to Taipei for better paid jobs.

Former premier and People First Party candidate James Soong is trailing his rivals in the latest opinion polls. Photo: Reuters

But in the 2020 presidential race, Tsai’s strategy of playing up Beijing’s campaign of pressure and intimidation appears to have more appeal for young voters.

In the opinion poll on Wednesday, 67.8 per cent of young voters said they believed Tsai was the most capable of protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. Just 15.7 per cent backed Han and 12.4 per cent supported Soong.

And when it came to cross-strait relations, 56.5 per cent believed Tsai was the better leader to handle ties, while 16.7 per cent thought Han would do a better job, with Soong just behind at 15.9 per cent.

However, Peng said that while young voters might prefer Tsai, they may not necessarily turn up to vote on the day, which would require them in some cases to travel a long distance to their hometowns.

Acknowledging that winning the youth vote would be vital, DPP secretary general Lo Wen-jia noted that more than 65 per cent of first-time voters had cast ballots in the last election.

“Keeping [these voters] engaged so that they show up at the polling stations and increasing their turnout rate is therefore one of our party’s campaign focuses,” he said.

The next instalment in the series will look at the election campaign of KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu.

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