Taiwan elections

Generation gap emerging along left-right political divide

Students Ou Ming (left), 22, and Lin Chia-hsien, 21, at a rally for the New Power Party in Taiwan. "We need a party that tilts left, one that cares about the people," says Mr Lin.
Students Ou Ming (left), 22, and Lin Chia-hsien, 21, at a rally for the New Power Party in Taiwan. "We need a party that tilts left, one that cares about the people," says Mr Lin.ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING

Undergraduate Lin Chia-hsien gets emotional talking about issues such as "unfair" free trade agreements, pollution and "land justice" - the expropriation of land by the government.

"We need a party that tilts left, one that cares about the people," says the 21-year-old, urgency in his voice.

His mother, he admits, does not quite understand why he gets all hot and bothered about such matters which "do not directly affect" him.

For him, it is clear. "If you hurt our society, we will fight back."

Mr Lin belongs to a young generation which is at the forefront of a new divide emerging in Taiwan.

Traditionally, Taiwanese society is polarised along the blue-green line, based on one's identity and stance on the island's status vis-a-vis China.

But a nascent cleavage is opening up, this time along left-right politics.

Young Taiwanese, who are distinctly more pro-independence than their elders, are increasingly concerned about issues like inequality and the environment. They want the government to do more to protect the vulnerable; at the same time, they are suspicious of the pull of globalisation and big businesses and their ties with the government, and seek "more transparent" policymaking.

The phenomenon has given rise to the phrase you zuo you du - meaning "both left-wing and pro-independence" - to describe the young.

This year's elections have catapulted a clutch of small parties - the so-called Third Force - to island-wide prominence. The most notable is the year-old New Power Party (NPP), co-founded by black metal band singer Freddy Lim, 39, chairman of human rights group Amnesty International in Taiwan.

The NPP is expected to do well tomorrow. Polls show it overtaking presidential candidate James Soong's People's First Party as the third most popular party after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT).

The party grew out of the Sunflower movement in 2013 when activists and students occupied the legislature to protest against the ratification of a services trade pact with China. It has since widened its appeal to embrace various liberal causes. It champions redistribution of higher taxes and abolition of the death penalty, and advocates independence for Taiwan.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Lim, his long hair slicked into a ponytail, says his party, which has 40,000 members and supporters, rides the twin forces of "a hunger for social justice" and a coalesced Taiwanese identity.

Another small party, the Social Democratic Party, also wants a stronger labour movement to lobby for higher pay and gay marriage.

Founding member Miao Po-ya, 28, says: "Why should we subsidise the rich and the big corporations? They should be paying their fair share of taxes so the government can provide welfare programmes for the less well-off."

While democratic and human rights ideals play a role in youth embracing such cases, self-interest also plays a part.

In the past, there was no left- right divide in Taiwan due to rapid economic development, political scientist Wu Yu-shan explains. But with the economy stubbornly stagnant for more than a decade, there is demand for "distributive justice".

In particular, the youth are disproportionately hurt. The jobless rate among those aged 20 to 24, for instance, is 12.7 per cent, compared with the average of 3.9 per cent. Says Prof Wu: "The young are suffering from both an economic downturn and ideological alienation."

Engineer Henry Wu, 30, who earns NT$40,000 (S$1,700) and despairs of owning a home, says: "The DPP - let alone the KMT - is more like a corporation than a party that cares about our needs."

This has resulted in a generation schism. While older Taiwanese are also hit by the weak economy, some say they are grateful for the KMT in helping the island industrialise.

But the emergence of this new divide is not necessarily a bad thing, say some, as groups in society are then not defined predominantly by where they stand on the blue-green spectrum. Others welcome it as a check on the two parties.

Says Ms Hsiao Ping, 25, an interior designer who used to support the KMT: "The KMT and DPP have not been very effective. But if some from the new parties are elected, it might keep the two on their toes."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Generation gap emerging along left-right political divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe