In the months leading up to a pivotal presidential election for Taiwan, candidates have focused on who can best handle the island democracy’s volatile relationship with China, with its worries about the risks of war. But at a recent forum in Taipei, younger voters instead peppered two of the candidates with questions about everyday issues like rent, telecom scams and the voting age.
It was a telling distillation of the race, the outcome of which will have far-reaching implications for Taiwan. The island is a potential flashpoint between the United States and China, which claims Taiwan as its territory and has signaled that it could escalate military threats if the Democratic Progressive Party wins.
But many Taiwanese voters, especially those in their 20s and 30s, say they are weary of geopolitics and yearn for a campaign more focused on their needs at home. In interviews, they spoke of rising housing costs, slow income growth and narrowing career prospects. A considerable number expressed disillusionment with Taiwan’s two dominant parties, the governing Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Nationalist Party.
That sentiment has helped propel the rise of a third: the Taiwan People’s Party, an upstart that has gained traction in the polls partly by tapping into frustration over bread-and-butter issues, especially among younger people. The two main parties have also issued policy packages promising to address these anxieties.
Whom young people ultimately vote for — and how many vote at all — could be a crucial in deciding the presidential election on Jan. 13. About 70 percent of Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s voted in the 2020 presidential election, a lower share than among middle-aged and older voters, according to official data. People ages 20 to 34 count for a fifth of Taiwan’s population, government estimates show.
“We’re tired of the divisions and wars of words between political parties,” said Shen Chih-hsiang, a biotechnology student from Kaohsiung, a city in the south that is traditionally a stronghold of the Democratic Progressive Party. He remained undecided on whom to support.
“Instead of worrying about the politics of major powers that are hard to change,” said Mr. Shen, 25, “I am more concerned about whether I can get a job and afford a house after graduation.”
The frustrations voiced by Taiwan’s voters have highlighted some of the issues that the next administration will be under pressure to address. Taiwan is renowned for its cutting-edge semiconductor industry. But many younger workers at smaller companies earn relatively low incomes, and inflation can eat into any small pay increases. Housing prices have risen in many cities.
Vice President Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, has led in the polls for months. But his lead has narrowed over Hou Yu-ih, the candidate for the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Ko Wen-je, the candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party, has slipped in recent polls but could still play a decisive role by drawing youth votes that might have once gone to Mr. Lai’s party.
To increase the chances of an opposition victory, Mr. Hou and Mr. Ko had briefly discussed forming an alliance. But the talks fell apart in a spectacular fashion late last month.
“So much of this youth support for Ko Wen-je is really driven not by actual admiration for the man and his policies, but by frustration,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. He cited focus group discussions he had with Taiwanese students.
“This idea that the D.P.P. and K.M.T. are both equally bad seems to have taken hold among a lot of younger voters,” Professor Nachman said, referring to the two main parties.
In a recent poll by My Formosa, an online magazine, 29 percent of respondents ages 20 to 29 said they supported Mr. Ko and his running mate, a fall from the previous survey, while 36 percent backed Mr. Lai. Other polls suggested a similar pattern, thought experts stressed those results could change in the final weeks of the race.
The rumble of discontent did not mean that Taiwanese were dismissive about the risks of conflict with China, said Chang Yu-meng, the president of the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy. The group had organized the presidential forum last month, where Mr. Lai and Mr. Ko answered questions from young voters.
“I think young people are still highly concerned about international topics,” Mr. Chang said in an interview after the forum, citing relations with China as an example. “But apart from that, they are really concerned about a diversity of issues.”
Winning the election would be a watershed for the Democratic Progressive Party. Once a scrappy outsider, it was founded in 1986 as a wave of mass protests and democratic activism pushed the Nationalist Party to abandon authoritarian rule. Since Taiwan began direct presidential elections in 1996, no party has won more than two successive terms.
The Democratic Progressive Party has tended to win most of the youth vote, but after two terms in power under President Tsai Ing-wen, it is no longer a fresh face. And many younger Taiwanese tend to see the opposition Nationalists as a party too caught in the past and too attached to China.
“To young people in Taiwan now, the D.P.P. is the establishment,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, who has long studied Taiwanese politics and conducted interviews with younger voters. “Whatever the D.P.P. was going to do for young people, they should have done by now. There’s a lot of youth dissatisfaction with the economy.”
Mr. Ko, a surgeon and a former mayor of Taipei, has leaped into the space created by this discontent. He supported the Democratic Progressive Party earlier in his political ascent but formed the Taiwan People’s Party in 2019 as an alternative to the establishment. At rallies across the island, he has promised to solve housing and economic problems with a no-nonsense approach that he says he honed in hospital emergency wards. Mr. Ko and his supporters argue that he can also thaw relations with China.
“Taiwan has been stagnant for too long, and it needs some changes,” said Hsieh Yu-ching, 20, who recently attended a youth rally held by Mr. Ko.
Mr. Lai recently announced a series of youth policies, promising to improve the job opportunities and mitigate high housing costs. He also announced as his running mate Bi-khim Hsiao, who has been Taiwan’s representative in Washington for more than three years. Ms. Hsiao could lift enthusiasm for the Democratic Progressives, several experts said.
“I also want to acknowledge the many domestic and social challenges that our young people are facing,” Ms. Hsiao said at a news conference last month. She promised to do more to address anxiety over jobs, housing and the environment.
The parties all face the hurdle of coaxing voters to turn up at the ballot box. Taiwan’s minimum voting age, 20, is higher than in many other democracies, and people must vote where they are officially registered as residents. For some voters, especially younger ones, that means a long trip back to their hometowns.
Millie Lin, who works at a technology company in Taipei and hails from Tainan, at the other end of the island, said she had not decided whether to go home to vote on Jan. 13.
“When I see the struggles between political parties,” she said, “I sometimes feel that my vote can’t change anything.”