Tuesday, February 10, 2015

“Why Will Young People Dominate at the Midterm Elections?”: Du Yihuan’s Take on the Rise of Young Voters’ Involvement in Politics in Taiwan

On November 29, 2014, Ko Wen-Je, a physician with Asperger’s syndrome, won the Taipei mayoral election. While it was a triumph for a candidate who did not have any kind of political background, there was a larger force at play besides his own abilities. For the first time in history, the younger generations in Taiwan, fed up with the inaction and incompetence of incumbent politicians, decided to take matters into their own hands by publicly voicing their frustrations and directions of change, and actively transforming the ways political campaigns are conducted. As a result, Taiwanese young voters aged 20 to 35 turned out to be the dominating factor in this election and perhaps all elections in the coming years, said the Commonwealth Magazine’s Du Yihuan in “Why Will Young People Dominate at the Midterm Elections?”, a reflection of the impacts of young Taiwanese on 2014’s Taipei Mayoral election.

The story of this “Young Political Activists” movement began 15 months prior, when the death of a mistreated conscripted soldier, Hung Chung-Chiu, led to widespread protests. Hung was forced to do strenuous physical drills as a punishment for carrying a camera phone with him into a military base, even though this offense should only have warranted administrative punishments. As a result, he suffered from heat stroke and fell into a coma before dying of organ failure at a military hospital, a mere two days before he would have been relieved of conscription duty. The incident sparked roaring outcries, particularly among younger generations, and impelled a record 100,000 people demonstrating outside a Ministry of Defense building. This series of protests was a major reason for the drastic changes in legislation that followed, including the abolition of court-martial during peacetime, and the treatment of military prisoners as civilian prisoners..

The Hung Chung-chiu incident struck a nerve in the hearts of young Taiwanese. Paired with discontent of the government’s attitude towards low salaries (“22K” is an oft-quoted statistic, referring to the monthly salary in New Taiwan Dollars afforded to minimum-wage workers, an amount that barely makes ends meet) and growing economic inequality, various scandals, such as the food safety incidents that surfaced in late 2013, only served to build up the smolder and long-lasting grudge in the hearts of activists waiting for the culmination, the tipping point, the needle on the haystack. And it did come, albeit after months of no action.

On March 18, 2014, a group of university students stormed into the National Assembly house, and, with the aid of the oppositional party, occupied it for the next two weeks. This incident, later known as Occupy Parliament or the Sunflower Student Movement, was triggered by the passage of a cross-strait service trading agreement. Students and other young people that later would join them were angered by the potential service job loss caused by this agreement, as well as the hasty process in which it was passed. To peacefully end the occupation, the government eventually accommodated the movement’s main adjuration, “demand transparency in pacts negotiated with China,” according to Du, by extirpating the agreement altogether and restarting.

A couple of months later, when election season was fully upon Taiwan, a tectonic shift in attitude was evident when contrasted with previous elections. In the past, young people either didn’t vote or only voted according to their parents’ suggestions or stances, much less actually participate in the election process. This year, however, the number of young people who signed up as candidates for local political positions had grown by more than tenfold. This also showed the remarkable change in young people taking initiative and taking responsibility for their own government. In addition, instead of following their parents’ political stances, they are thinking for themselves, coming up with their own, informed conclusions, and even make strong cases for their ideal candidates to their family members.

All over the world, young people invariably fall to the bottom of the economic ladder, and are forced to politically engage themselves in order to enact socioeconomic changes that were otherwise considered impossible boundaries to cross. Some organized peaceful strikes and protests to earnestly voice their appeals, like the Occupy Wall Street movement; others went to the extremes of instigating a civil uprising that started with riotic demonstrations and eventually led to a revolution, for example the Syrian Revolution. But Du’s article shows how young Taiwanese take a different route. They recognize and even embrace the existing political system, are able to leverage modern technologies and social media, and eventually beat career politicians at their own game. The young generation in Taiwan is not only pushing the once unshakable boundaries rooted in political stalemate, but is also showing the world a new and effective path of bettering their homeland.

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