Do Young People Actually Matter in Taiwanese Politics?

Written by Brian Hioe

Image Credit: 太陽花運動-20140410 by Kidfly’s Living Story/Flikr, License: CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taiwanese youth politics have been foregrounded in the years after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, particularly with a new generation of young people entering politics following the movement. This entrance of youth into politics led to the formation of “Third Force” parties, which sought to break from the two-party stranglehold of the DPP and KMT. 

However, significantly, with the gradual weakening of the Third Force due to fears of a resurgent KMT after 2018, the DPP could reinvent its image as a party to present itself as one that supports young people. As a result, Tsai has generally been seen as backed by young people in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. 

More broadly, young people are not seen as voting KMT–a November 2020 Al-Jazeera report found that the KMT had less than 9,000 members under 40. Moreover, the KMT has generally failed to run candidates able to win the support of young people in past years. For example, the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, was initially seen as an outlier because he seemed to have the support of young people when he won Kaohsiung mayorship. That being said, Han seemed to have re-oriented more in the direction of ROC nationalism when he ran for president in 2020, appealing primarily to the elderly. 

This raises why political parties in Taiwan have sought to appeal to young people in past years. After all, Taiwan is projected to become a super-aged society by 2025, in which one in every five citizens is over 65 years old. If young people are defined as under 39, they constitute 6.77 million of the electorate. Still, young people by this definition are outnumbered by 12.63 million older voters. 

Youth turnout was high in the 2020 elections. But apart from demographic odds being stacked against them, young people are further disenfranchised by the household registration system. Taiwan only allows voting at age twenty, resulting in Taiwan having the highest voting ages.

Han’s 2020 presidential run proved to be disastrous, resulting in his defeat by large margins. However, in this light, it may have been a politically rational move on his part to try and focus his outreach toward the elderly. 

The Sunflower Movement led to an inversion of the social verdict on young people. While young people were previously bemoaned as a “Strawberry Generation” that was soft and not as capable as their parents, young people were seen as willing to take great political risks for what they stood for after the movement. 

Subsequently, after the movement, the view became prevalent that young people in Taiwan were capable. Moreover, they could determine the future of their country—hence why the DPP threw its support behind young people, backing young candidates from Third Force parties or running young candidates of its own. By contrast, though current KMT chair Johnny Chiang is the youngest chair in party history, the KMT has generally had difficulty recruiting younger candidates to run for office. 

Yet, in many ways, this shift is ironic. A subtext of the Sunflower Movement was that of generational conflict, in that younger activists sometimes clashed with older, more conservative parents that disapproved of their roles in the movement. The narrative of intergenerational conflict again rose to the fore in the period leading up to the 2020 elections, during the period in which Han Kuo-yu seemed to be a genuine threat to Tsai because of the fervent support he enjoyed from pan-Blue elderly.

This raises the question of whether youth politics will matter when Taiwan is a super-aged society. No political party wants to appear as though it only has the support of the elderly. Nevertheless, it is not possible to win elections based on only having the support of young people either, given what demographic trends indicate about Taiwan. 

The DPP is probably hoping that if it can come across as a party that has the support of young people, other social demographics will follow. Likewise, it is hoped that young people are a demographic that will work on the elderly and other social demographics that may be more susceptible to the political sway of the pan-Blue camp. For example, given disinformation of Chinese origin circulating on LINE and other social media platforms targeting the elderly, to politically benefit the pan-Blue camp, young people have been among those that have developed tools to identify disinformation and provide more accurate information. 

Discursively, it seems clear that young people play a prominent role in how the pan-Green camp seeks to shape perceptions of itself. That being said, it is not always clear whether young people are, in fact, truly influential in the DPP. For example, former Sunflower Movement student leader Lin Fei-fan was invited to take up a position in the DPP as its deputy secretary-general and other former Sunflower Movement activists, such as Lai Pin-yu, are legislators. At the same time, the DPP is sometimes accused of placing younger politicians in seemingly high positions to appear as though the party listens to and promotes promising young people to give the political control of older politicians a fresh face. 

Younger politicians may call the shots in the DPP in the future. Still, they do not at present—this is despite that younger politicians have sometimes been able to influence the DPP by publicly pushing the party’s leadership on issues such as support for Hong Kong refugees. 

It is not out of the question that such young people will eventually take the reins of power. Indeed, they will once older politicians depart the political scene. But all appearances to the contrary, this may be a premature assessment. It may not be, in fact, that young people have come of age in Taiwanese politics, and instead of that, they remain subject to the larger established forces that have remained dominant for decades in politics. Whether this changes is to be seen.

Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan ‘Between Generations.

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