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A non-traditional candidate resonates with Taiwan’s youth ahead of Saturday’s presidential election

First-time voters are overwhelmingly drawn to Ko Wen-je, an outspoken surgeon-turned-politician who previously served as the mayor of Taipei, the island’s capital.

Taiwan elections

TAIPEI: With Taiwan’s high-stakes presidential election just days away, a nonconformist candidate has been resonating with the island’s youth, seemingly more concerned with the dearth of good jobs and affordable housing than the looming threat from China.

First-time voters are overwhelmingly drawn to Ko Wen-je, an outspoken surgeon-turned-politician who previously served as the mayor of Taipei, the island’s capital.

The 64-year-old has emerged as the third most popular candidate ahead of Saturday’s vote, behind those from Taiwan’s traditional opposing parties — the governing Democratic Progressive Party and the main opposition Nationalists, known as the Kuomintang or KMT.

The DPP and the KMT have dominated Taiwan’s politics for decades and have largely taken turns governing since the 1990s, after decades of martial law following Taiwan’s 1949 civil war split from China.

Beijing still claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to take control over it by force, if necessary. In the face of that pressure, DPP has positioned itself as more independence-leaning while KMT has traditionally favored closer ties with Beijing.

Ko, meanwhile, has promoted himself as the alternative, seeking a middle ground and advocating patience with China. He founded the Taiwan People’s Party, or TPP, in 2019 and talks about more economy and pragmatic issues, including the cost and quality of education.

In a survey of its undergraduate students published last month, Soochow University in Taipei found that 33.9% of the respondents said they intended to vote for Ko, while 22.1% preferred William Lai, the DPP candidate and Taiwan’s vice president who is seen as the overall front-runner in the vote. About 5% favored KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih. The university said 12,119 students were polled from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, though it did not say how the survey was conducted. No margin of error was given.

Part of Ko’s attraction to young voters is their perspective, analysts say.

There is a generational gap between first-time voters and older residents in the way they see the island’s political landscape, according to Liu Wen, a researcher at Academia Sinica, a Taipei-based research institute.

Older voters may remember the DPP as an up-and-coming party that challenged the once-entrenched KMT, Liu said. But those in their early 20s have come of age while the DPP was in power and see it as part of the political establishment.

Ko has emerged as an alternative to the “blue-green” divide, Liu said, referring to KMT’s and DPP’s official colours.

And having that third option “can be exciting for young people who want a more anti-establishment platform,” she said.

Ko himself attributes his popularity among Taiwan’s youth to the generational divide. Older voters, he told The Associated Press in an interview last week, have supported the KMT or DPP for 30 years.

“It is difficult for them to change,” Ko said. “But young voters are different.”

“It is not because I appeared (on the political scene) that Taiwan has a third party,” Ko also said. “It is because young people in Taiwan were already sick of these two parties that I have had the opportunity to form a third.”

Henry Su, a 19-year-old economics student at National Taiwan University in Taipei, said many of his friends are very pro-Ko and “they think he’s pretty good,” though he personally leans toward supporting Lai.

However, Su said he is “disappointed” by the DPP’s emphasis on upholding Taiwan’s sovereignty in the face of China’s threats — as opposed to addressing young people’s more immediate concerns, such as housing and education.

Fang Kai-hao, a 22-year-old studying biomechanical engineering at the same university, said he favours Ko for being more straightforward than the other candidates. Ko graduated from the medical school at the same university, “so the student community trusts him more,” Fang said.

Beijing has described the election in Taiwan as a choice between war and peace and has blasted front-runner Lai as a separatist and a “destroyer of peace.” Chinese warships and military aircraft approach the island almost daily, despite Taiwan’s protests. Taipei accuses China of seeking to influence the vote through an array of pressures, from military harassment to politically motivated trade curbs.

While in the past there was a clearer distinction between DPP and KMT on where they stood regarding Beijing — with KMT favouring unification with China — in recent years, their positions have come closer as the vast majority of Taiwanese favour maintaining the status quo over unifying with China.

The island’s people also largely identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese — the Soochow University survey found 80% of its respondents identified as Taiwanese.

All three presidential candidates said in a recent televised debate they were open to communicating with Beijing but vowed to protect Taiwan’s freedoms and democracy. However, both KMT and Ko’s TPP claim they could cultivate better ties with China than DPP, arguing that this would reduce the risk of a Chinese attack on the island.

While young people — especially those of conscription age — also have some anxiety about a potential attack, many say they regard China as a “neighbour” that can be talked to, in contrast with the heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait portrayed by international media.

“China is our neighbour, and we can have friendly economic exchanges,” said Qu Yu-rou, a student at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei. “I hope there will be no war.”

However, Qu was firm when it came to national identity, saying her generation “all grew up in Taiwan” and did not immigrate from China.

“I’ve thought I was Taiwanese since I was a child,” she said.

China is not just an overarching issue in every Taiwanese election but has now also become, in the digital age, a key factor in a candidate’s choice of social media channels.

Of the three candidates now running, only Ko has an official presence on TikTok — a Chinese platform that many democratically elected governments have security concerns about, including Taiwan’s.

Ko has more than 200,000 followers on TikTok, plus 1.1 million Instagram followers — dwarfing Lai’s 173,000 Instagram followers and Hou’s 97,400. His short videos on social media are eclectic, showing him riffing on election topics in one to playing on arcade claw machines in another.

In contrast, the DPP’s most talked-about social media ad in this campaign has a clear political message of continuity, showing Lai in the passenger seat, driving along the island’s coast with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected in 2016 but is unable to run again due to term limits. She then stops to hand over the wheel to Lai, who is joined by his running mate, former U.S. envoy Hsiao Bi-khim.

Whether Ko’s TikTok and Instagram popularity will translate into votes remains to be seen. Observers caution that while young voters may interact with social media content more, travelling from their campuses or home to vote on Saturday may be too expensive for some, leading to a lower turnout among the young.

Still, many young Taiwanese feel the weight of the issues at stake.

“I feel the responsibility is on my shoulders,” said Lin Jing-xuan, a Soochow University student and first-time voter. “I have to think carefully before making a decision.”

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