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A plot against first-time voters?

As many as 1.8 million Taiwanese voters in the 20-24 age group, 10 percent of the about 18 million eligible voters, are expected to cast their ballot for the first time in Saturday’s elections, a number that could be a deciding factor in what has been a neck-and-neck presidential race.

As a young democracy that held its first presidential election in 1996 after nearly half a century of authoritarian rule, the impressive voter turnout in major elections — which this year will once again be above 80 percent — is commendable, and highlights the commitment of Taiwanese to a system that became theirs after years of democratic struggle by their forefathers.

Sadly, it now appears that not all voters are equal.

Last year the Taiwanese government announced that, for the first time in the nation’s history, the presidential and legislative elections would be merged. As a consequence, the presidential election, which historically had been held on March 20, was moved up by more than two months, to January 14.

Although the authorities claimed the measure was adopted to cut expenses on expensive electoral campaigns — and no doubt holding the elections concurrently will achieve this aim — it also leaves some voters at a disadvantage. And this includes young voters.

The principal reason why the move has been called unfair to young voters is the fact that the election will coincide with the final week of exams for many students. As a large number of students of voting age go to school away from home, many will not have time to return home to vote.

Conversely, the timing of the election benefits wealthier and more mobile Taiwanese who will be returning to Taiwan for the Lunar New Year holidays, which this year fall one week after the elections.

While the divide can only be delineated imperfectly, it is generally agreed that for generational reasons (young Taiwanese tend to identify more with Taiwan than older generations, many of whom have a stronger sense of attachment to China), first-time and young voters tend to favor the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), while the opposite applies to the more than 1 million Taiwanese who currently work in China, mostly in or around Shanghai, most of whom support the KMT over the belief that the party can better ensure their economic well-being by accelerating trade with China.

Whether the drawbacks and upshots of choosing January 14 for the combined elections were mere accidental offshoots resulting from cost-saving requirements or something more nefarious is a question that has yet to be answered. However, the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan has speculated that the move may have been a calculated effort to give President Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT an advantage in the race, in which whether a few hundred thousand first-time voters can exercise their right to take part in the election can be all it takes to determine who will run the country for the next four years.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news chief and a reporter at the Taipei Times newspaper and a correspondent on China for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

[Note that the number of 1st time voters has been corrected from an earlier version of this post. Jon]

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012


  1. Normal Citizen Normal Citizen

    The author might made a mistake on the number of first-time presidential election voters, which is estimated to be at 1.2 million, not 760,000. The latter is the increase of registered voters compared to 2008.
    Moreover, the KMT government will always argue its choice of holding the election on January 14 the other way, leading to merely more suspicions but not confirmation of their motives.

  2. Max Chang Max Chang

    When the Central Election Committee announced to move up presidential election date, the first thing came to my mind was that KMT tried to skip 228 – the day 3 weeks prior to the regular election date, the day DPP to consolidate its supporters’ morale, the day KMT to be condemn.

  3. J. Michael Cole J. Michael Cole

    @Normal Citizen: You are absolutely right, and thanks for pointing that out! I obtained my numbers from a number of articles that had the number at between 750,000 and 760,000. However, I’ve since looked at Ministry of the Interior figures, and is says that by voting day, about 1.8 million Taiwanese will have reached voting age. As the MOI estimates a 75 percent turnout, that would mean 1.2 million first-time voters aged 20-24. In any case, this makes the problem I discuss in the article even more serious.

  4. J. Michael Cole J. Michael Cole

    If one reads the CEC figures carefully (which I did not), the number 760,000 represents the increase in registered voters from the election in 2008, as Normal Citizen points out. That said, this figure does not take the mortality rate into account, which means that the number of first-time voters must be higher — the 760,000 plus the replacement for voters who died between 2008 and 2012.

  5. Taiwan urgently needs to implement a system of absentee or pre-poll voting. Too many Taiwanese are disenfranchised because they are unable to attend their designated polling booth on election day. Of course there are fears that new methods of voting could be subject to manipulation, but there are already problems with the existing system as J. Michael Cole has pointed out.

    A another issue is why do young Taiwanese have to wait until they are 20 years old to vote. The voting age should be lowered to 18.

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