Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Youth dump DPP

Taiwan's governing party fears it has lost youth vote

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, March 19, 2008

TAIPEI- With the presidential election set for Saturday, the youth vote has become a focus - and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is worried that many of its young former supporters may have turned against it.

In the 2000 and 2004 elections, the youth vote helped propel the DPP into power. It may have been critical in 2004, when Chen Shui-bian won the presidency by fewer than 30,000 votes.

That year, nearly 60 percent of voters aged 20 to 29 favored Chen, who was seen as promising a fresh start after more than half a century of rule by the corruption-tainted Nationalists, or Kuomintang. But this month a United Daily News poll found a reversal, with more than 60 percent of prospective voters in their 20s now supporting the Nationalist candidate, Ma Ying-jeou.

The DPP's own corruption scandals have been one source of disenchantment. Another has been concern that the party's often strident emphasis on Taiwan's independence from mainland China may be hurting the island's economy and costing it jobs.

Ma's campaign has been making the most of this opening, courting young people with hip T-shirts, campaign blogs and even a "Babes for Ma" group of young female supporters. The Nationalists' youth department recently ran an online contest in which Web users could vote for the Babes group's leader, according to local media reports.

Frank Hsieh, the DPP presidential candidate, is fighting back. He has enlisted a spokesman from a heavy metal band, set up a blog and posted a series of ads on YouTube. In one, he makes a punning reference to a sexual position in the film "Lust, Caution." In others, he talks about the need to protect privacy in the wake of the Edison Chen sex photo scandal, in which explicit images of the pop icon were distributed on the Internet, and tells a corny joke as one of his own young staffers groans.

The DPP's hope is that the YouTube videos, blogs and contests will lure youth support by projecting a hip, tech-savvy image. But according to political analysts and polls, the pro-independence party has been losing ground, while the Nationalists' Ma is picking up support with his clean reputation and pledge to revive the economy.

"The DPP is trying to stir up emotion and enthusiasm, but it won't work as well this time because young people have changed a lot," said Liao Da-chi, a political analyst at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. "They feel pressure to find a job."

This month, one of the DPP's own rising stars, Luo Wen-jia, a former DPP legislator and member of Hsieh's campaign team, said bluntly that his party had "already lost the election" because it had lost support from many young people, according to local media reports.

Others in the party share his concerns. "Young people were our most loyal supporters, but now we're losing them," said a 32-year-old DPP official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. "This is very dangerous."

He blamed the problem on a dramatic worsening of the DPP's image since it gained power in 2000 promoting issues like environmentalism and labor rights, which resonate with youth. Most importantly, the party promised clean politics.

Now, after a string of corruption scandals involving Chen's own top aides and relatives, many young people are disillusioned.

"Our party's image can't be turned around with a few YouTube videos," said the DPP official. "Hsieh is trying to use those to appeal to young people, but that's not what they most care about. They care about jobs and the future, and Hsieh should offer them better policies."

Research also suggests that younger Taiwanese are less ideological and politically partisan than their elders. That makes them less likely to be swayed by the DPP's appeals to Taiwanese nationalism at the cost of better ties with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade Chinese province and has not ruled out the use of force to reunite it with the mainland.

"Younger Taiwanese tend to be pragmatic and flexible in their views," wrote the Taiwan expert Shelley Rigger in a 2006 study for the East-West Center Washington. "They lack the passionate emotion that drives many" in the older generation.

Among the survey findings Rigger cited: Those under 40 were more likely than their elders to identify themselves as both "Taiwanese" and "Chinese," and had the highest support for engagement with the mainland. They were also less likely to be affiliated with a particular party.

According to the United Daily News poll, those in their 20s are also the least likely age group to vote Saturday.

There are 3.67 million people in Taiwan between the ages 20 and 29, according to Taiwan's Ministry of the Interior -- all eligible to vote.

Both parties have their work cut out for them if they want the support of Owen Lo and Pomin Chang, both 20-year-old engineering students at National Taiwan University in Taipei. Chatting in the basement of a McDonald's next to campus, they insisted that they cared about the election but said they weren't impressed with either candidate.

"I care who the president is, but I don't think either's fit to be president," Chang said. "Neither is very honest."

He said he planned to cast an invalid ballot in protest.

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