Written by Courtney Donovan Smith.

In the aftermath of last year’s Sunflower protests, there was considerable hand-wringing in both established parties about the clear lack of trust the protesters had in them. Both the DPP and KMT vowed to increase communication, boost outreach and to pay more attention to the needs and aspirations of the young.

Two specific issues emerged. First, many young activists wanted to lower the voting age from 20 to 18. Second–and this became especially apparent during the 9-in-1 elections–was absentee voting. Under the current laws, voters must cast their ballots where their household registration is located, usually their hometown. This is a particular problem for students and young workers who often live in cities other than their hometowns and for whom the time and money to return home to vote is a burden. During the 9-in-1 elections, with public transportation largely fully booked, some had to resort to tour buses to go vote.

Both the KMT and DPP have agreed in principle to lower the voting age.  The KMT has gone a step further and is also advocating for absentee voting. Pan-greens, however, have called the absentee ballot issue a “distraction”.

There are a few things wrong with this picture. First, the pan-greens have gone all out to get the youth to vote. After all, they voted overwhelming in their favor in the 9-in-1 election and usually do very well in this demographic. Conversely, the KMT does poorly with the young at the best of times. So why is the KMT trying to get younger voters into the voter booths, and to help them vote from anywhere? Why is the DPP against something that is common practice in democracies around the world? Why is there no open debate on this issue?

The one plausible answer is the Taishang, or China-based Taiwanese businesspeople and workers. By lowering the voting age and agreeing to absentee ballots the KMT stands to lose tens of thousands of votes at a minimum with the youth demographic. But once the absentee genie is out of the bottle, this opens the possibility of allowing Taiwanese to vote from China. For the KMT, this would be huge. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but almost all estimates of Taiwanese resident in China are in the one-to-two million range. For many of these Taiwanese, smooth relations across the strait are very important, both personally and professionally, and by most accounts the Taishang support the KMT by a large margin. Indeed, China has gone out of its way to make it easy for China-based Taiwanese to return to Taiwan during election times. Opening absentee ballots to them could possibly be a net gain for the KMT in the hundreds of thousands, far exceeding any losses to young voters.

So why isn’t this debate out in the open? The DPP does not want the young to see that it is not on their side in this debate. The DPP is also sensitive to criticisms of its cross-strait policies and to a lingering image of the party being less pro-business. Both of these affect Taishang views of the DPP. By intentionally blocking absentee balloting, the DPP looks callous to both youth and to fellow Taiwanese in China. Even worse, after years of championing democracy, for them to be blocking extending the vote to huge numbers of fellow citizens looks cynical indeed.

The KMT is also afraid of looking too pro-business, and also too pro-China. Allowing absentee voting across the strait would open them to criticism on both fronts. They likely also know that if the policy were spelled out, the KMT would look cynical in using young people as a lever to gain their supporters in China the vote. Additionally, they most likely want it to pass without too many questions about how voting by Taishangs could be manipulated inside China. If it was done by mail, would Chinese authorities intercept votes for the DPP? If it were done electronically, many votes would have to pass through China’s great internet firewall and potentially could be interfered with there. Would business partners or government officials in China demand to see a pro-KMT vote in exchange for business, or regulatory approval? With so much at stake, keep an eye on how this issue plays out.

Courtney Donovan Smith is a regular ICRT radio news commentator and owns the blog Taiwan Take.