Written by Paul R. Katz.

The 2016 Taiwan elections may bear witness to a story bigger than DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s impending victory, and perhaps the DPP’s winning control over the Legislative Yuan (which would mark the first time since 1949 a non-KMT party will have taken charge of Taiwan’s lawmaking process). KMT candidate Eric Chu may still be able to pull off a “Dewey beats Truman” type upset, but barring some sort of dirty trickery, or a crackpot/gangster taking pot shots at election eve parades or rallies, the winds of change sweeping through Taiwanese politics seem unstoppable.

The story in question is the rise of Taiwan’s youth as a political force to be reckoned with. What we are seeing now is the culmination of a process of protest combined with the commitment to changing things for the better. It began in the summer of 2013 with mass rallies following the suspicious death of conscript soldier Hung Chung-chiu 洪仲丘 on July 4, and continued through the spring of 2014 with the Sunflower Movement’s successful campaign against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (海峽兩岸服務貿易協議), which in turn helped fuel Ko Wen-je 柯文哲’s victory as independent candidate for mayor of Taipei. On January 16, these trends may reach their acme with the KMT being swept out of power.

Below are some of the young political elites who are running for legislative office: If even some of them win, their triumphs may have a lasting impact on both Taiwan politics and Cross-Strait ties:

  • Hung Tzu-yung 洪慈庸 (b. 1982): A New Power Party (時代力量) candidate, she is the elder sister of Hung Chung-chiu. Once a shy young woman who dared to speak up on behalf of her wronged brother, she is now challenging the KMT incumbent in the central Taiwan metropolis of Taichung 台中. Hung is also the subject of a moving video by Wu Nien-jen 吳念真 (b. 1952), one of the most respected spokespersons of Taiwanese culture, the contents of which could melt even the coldest of blue hearts.
  • Freddy Lim 林昶佐 (b. 1976): Lead vocalist of Taiwan metal band Chthonic and now a New Power Party candidate, he is attempting to overturn KMT dominance in Taipei’s Wanhua 萬華 district.
  • Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 (b. 1973): Scholar, activist, and Sunflower Movement leader, he chose to resign from a tenured position at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s leading scholarly institution, in order to run for office in New Taipei City’s Hsi-chih 汐止 district as a New Power Party candidate.
  • Shirley Lu 呂孫綾 (b. 1988): One of the youngest candidates in the field, she is campaigning for the DPP in the Hsin-tien 新店 district of New Taipei City against a KMT heavyweight old enough to be her father, Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇 (b. 1959).
  • Lee Yen-jong 李晏榕 (b. 1980): Daughter of a well-known Taiwanese entrepreneur, she studied in France and worked as a human rights lawyer, but chose to return to Taiwan and pursue a career of social activism. She is representing the Social Democratic Party (社會民主黨) in Taipei City.
  • Wang Pao-hsuan 王寶萱 (b. 1982): A former university professor and expert in transitional justice who has also done work for Amnesty International, Wang came home to support the victims of unscrupulous land development schemes in places like Dapu 大埔 and Taoyuan 桃園 (the Aerotropolis or 航空城 project). She is running for office in Taoyuan as part of an alliance between the Green Party Taiwan (台灣綠黨) and Social Democratic Party.
  • Tsai Shih-Ying 蔡適應 (b. 1973): A rising star in the DPP who is hoping to follow up on the party’s triumph in the 2014 Keelung mayoral election by taking on two senior political figures: the KMT’s Hau Lung-pin 郝龍斌 (b. 1952) and the People First Party (親民黨)’s Liu Wen Hsiung 劉文雄 (b. 1954).
  • Hsiao Bi-khim 蕭美琴 (b. 1971): While hardly a political novice, having served as a DPP legislator from 2001-2008 and one of that party’s legislators-at-large (不分區立委) since 2012, she has chosen to take on the KMT in one of its last bastions of power, the scenic northeastern county of Hualien 花蓮.

With a few exceptions, most of the above candidates represent newly-formed and relatively small political parties (referred to locally as the “third force” or 第三勢力), preferring to conduct unconventional campaigns via Facebook and other forms of online media. Their “political rallies” often take the form of festivals, such as the piano concert in Da’an Forest Park (大安森林公園) organized by Minkuotang 民國黨candidate Wu Hsu-chih 吳旭智 (b. 1976).

The tens of thousands of young voters whose support they are vying to attract are for the most part cosmopolitan and outgoing, people who are not afraid to look to the future. They are also blessed with a strong sense of irreverence and humor. For example, when Eric Chu claimed to have been inspired to run for the presidency by an anonymous grandmother from Tamshui (淡水阿媽), the internet was soon swamped with humorous announcements of grannies allying to protect themselves from charges of having done the deed (and grandpas lining up to support them). Another classic is the ten-second summary of the first presidential debate by young Taiwanese comedian Tsai Aga 蔡阿嘎 (Tsai Wei-chia 蔡緯嘉; b. 1984), which aptly encapsulates the arrogance yet futility of such events.

While Taiwan’s youth justly receives some flak for the actions of a few “mama’s pets” (媽寶), it also has its share of bright and committed individuals (including those I have been teaching for the past three decades). These people do not want to be bound by murky decisions pertaining to Taiwan’s future made behind closed doors over 20 years ago, or nearly forced through the Legislative Yuan in a mere 30 seconds of debate/debacle. Some of these students are now teachers themselves, and their ranks include those have given their utmost to resist KMT attempts to reshape Taiwan’s middle school and high school curriculum.

For the foreseeable future, one of the KMT’s main challenges will involve trying to cope with these trends. This is because it remains essentially a party led by mainlander elites and the Taiwanese allies it has invested in, one that is founded on the principle of unquestioned obedience to seniority. Moreover, it is still waging the traditional type of campaign that has kept it entrenched in power for most of the past six decades, one based on massive deployment of monetary resources combined with attack ads attempting to exploit people’s fear of change. The time for such tactics has passed, however, with Ko Wen-je’s victory representing a harbinger of new trends that appear ready to come to fruition in this election cycle.

Another problem is that, for many young people, the KMT seems like a party more interested in protecting the interests of its elite cronies, while young people toil away at low-paying jobs or try to cope with unpaid furloughs.

To make matters worse, many businessmen with links to the KMT who are accused of wrongdoing tend to get off with a slap of the wrist or less. Take for example the case of the Ting Hsin International Group (頂新集團) tainted food scandal, which resulted in company executives being acquitted and only low-level employees convicted. In another example, the chairman of the Farglory Land Development Company (遠雄建設) was merely given a suspended sentence, albeit with a hefty fine.

Further controversy comes from the fact that even executives convicted of crimes often find mysterious ways to skip the country with their ill-gotten gains to enjoy the high life abroad, leaving it for others to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. The same holds true for some KMT politicians and most recently even a prosecutor convicted of corruption.

Of course it goes without saying that these young elites are not saints. Many have their warts (some of which are now being dredged up in campaign mud-slinging), and a few may end up disappointing their constituents, but they deserve a chance to prove themselves nonetheless.

And there is no guarantee that all of them will win. The KMT still has plenty of bite behind its bark, including a wealth of resources (or at least those remaining assets that the party is not rushing to sell off prior to the DPP’s assuming power). There is also controversy over some university’s seemingly trying to keep students from voting by means of scheduling final exams around the elections (see also Michael Cole’s piece on this blog), but this too will fail. Where there is a will, there is a way, and Taiwan’s young people have shown they have plenty of will.

In the end, we might do well to recall that the DPP started off as a youth movement as well: At the time of the Kaohsiung Incident (美麗島事件) in 1979, future luminaries such as Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 (b. 1941) and Annette Lu 呂秀蓮 (b. 1944) were in their mid to late 30s, while Chen Chu 陳菊 (b. 1950), today’s mayor of Kaohsiung, had not even turned 30. The same could be said for KMT during its formative years, although those seem to have been long forgotten.

The rise of Taiwan’s activist youth will pose challenges for China as well, for these are the elites who China’s leadership will have to deal with in the future. Taiwan’s next generation of leaders will not be pro-independence toadies, nor will they blindly reject closer ties to China, but they will demand to be treated with the respect they and their peers have earned. This means that it will prove essential for China to find a way to work with this generation so that all young people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will benefit.

In observing the energy and dedication of the individuals described above, I am often reminded of what Eowyn said when Aragorn asked her what she feared most. Her response was, “A cage. To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” My thoughts would be similar to Aragorn’s: “I do not think that will be your fate.”

Paul Katz is Distinguished Research Fellow in the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica.