Taiwanese youth voice income, housing concerns ahead of crucial elections

While cross-strait relations remain an overarching theme in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections this weekend, many young voters are more concerned with domestic issues, such as low wages and housing, that preoccupy them as much as or even more than the threat of an invasion by the People’s Republic of China. FRANCE 24 met with several of them. 

Some 19.5 million Taiwanese are eligible to vote in the island’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, January 13. Some 2.8 million, or 15 percent, are aged between 20 and 29 years old. 

Voters will determine Taiwan’s next leader from among three candidates: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Lai Ching-te, the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Hou Yu-ih and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)’s Ko Wen-je. 

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence DPP is due to step down at the end of her second consecutive term in May.     

Read moreTaiwan’s presidential election: Who are the candidates in the high-stakes vote?

Despite not being a large enough cohort to determine the outcome of an election, young people nevertheless represent a sizable chunk of Taiwan’s electorate capable of tipping the scales in a neck-and-neck race. 

With less than a day to go before the election, political groups have called on young people to return home and vote.  

Taiwan’s voting system relies on household registrations to determine voter eligibility. Despite moving to other cities for work and study, many young Taiwanese remain registered in their home town, so they must return in order to vote. 

While many have already bought tickets and packed their bags for the weekend, some remain uncertain whether they’ll cast their ballots on Saturday.  

Eligible youth participation in the past two elections ranged from 56.3 to 72.7 percent

Stagnant wages 

“I still haven’t decided yet if I’m going to vote … if I do, I’ll take the bus first thing tomorrow morning,” said Wang Miao, a 25-year-old woman working in Taipei’s IT sector.  

Wang’s hometown is in Kaohsiung, a southern port city over 400km from the capital. 

“The thing is, I don’t feel like the elections are going to change anything … Wages are low, and inflation is still high,” she said. 

IT worker Wang Miao pictured in Penghu County. © Wang Miao

While median wages in Taiwan grew 2.37 percent in 2023, average consumer prices increased by 2.5 percent over the same period, outpacing wage growth.  

“My company gave us a 1.5 percent raise last year, which is ridiculous compared to inflation,” said Xu Jing-chen, a 29-year-old engineer working in Hsinchu, a city southwest of Taipei.  

On the way back home to the coastal city of Tainan, Xu said he feels frustrated at the current politics because the available options seem unlikely to resolve the issues that young people face. 

“They’re all talking about raising the minimum wage, but I don’t make the minimum, so how does that affect me? I’m only voting out of civil duty … As far as I can tell, none of the candidates are offering any concrete solutions to improve our lives,” he said. 

While Lai proposes to increase the monthly minimum wage of publicly traded companies’ employees to 30,000 New Taiwan Dollars (NTD) (or €880.40), Hou proposes a general hike of minimum wage to NTD 33,000 (€968.70) from the current NTD 27,470 (€806.37). Both are significantly lower than the NTD 43,166 (€1265.13) median wage in Taiwan. 

“The only option for me, if I want to increase my salary, is to move abroad, maybe to the US. But my parents are here, my home is here,” Xu said.  

Hoping to start a family with his girlfriend, Xu said he has been looking to purchase an apartment in Hsinchu. 

Unaffordable housing 

“The market is crazy. A simple two-bedroom can cost over NTD 10 million (around €292,000), and that is without a parking space!” Xu said. 

Due to low interest rates, tax cuts and market speculation, housing in Taiwan is notoriously unaffordable, with an average unit costing over 9 times the median annual wage, far exceeding the price-to-income ratio of 3 times the annual wage recommended by the UN.  

Other young Taiwanese also talk about housing concerns. 

Wu Qian-hue, a 26-year-old graduate student working part-time and living with her parents in the suburbs of Taichung, a bustling city in central Taiwan, said soaring rents have prevented her from moving out. 

“What’s the point? I can barely pay for my daily expenses and that’s it. I barely have any savings, everything I make goes to pay my bills. There’s nothing left at the end of the month. Living with my family helps me avoid getting into debt,” she said. 

“One day I’d like to have a place of my own, but for now it’s a dream,” Wu said, lamenting her city’s high housing costs.  

“Everything’s more expensive now … House prices in Taipei are crazy. For now, I can only afford to rent. I’m glad [that] I receive a subsidy for it,” said Pheonix Hung, a 27-year-old artist working in Taipei.  

Hung added that she plans to vote for Lai in the upcoming presidential election because of his party’s policies on housing, which introduced rent subsidies for single people and households with young children in 2019.  

Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei.
Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei. © Phoenix Hung

Computer science student and first-time voter Sung Zhi-ming, 22, said he chose to remain in accommodations provided by his university, where he shares a room with three other students, because of high rents. 

“I don’t really have a choice. It’s either this or back home, which is too far to commute every day,” said Sung, who comes from Hualian, a city on Taiwan’s east coast. 

Sung said he plans to vote for the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, a candidate popular among younger generations for his outspoken manner and focus on domestic issues. 

Both Ko and Lai propose to tax vacant properties to encourage owners to put them on the rental market.  

Cross-strait relations 

But Taiwan’s relations with its giant neighbour remain at the forefront of some young people’s minds. 

Sung, who finished his military service last year, said he’s worried about a potential Chinese invasion

Taiwan requires all male citizens of military age to serve for four months in the national army, a period that was extended to one year starting in 2024. 

“I know we hear about it all the time, Chinese drills, Chinese balloons and Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait, and we’re all kind of numb, by the end of the day … but at the same time, you can’t not think about it,” he said.

Read more‘People don’t want to talk about war’: Taiwan civil defence battles invasion risk denial

Sung said he plans to vote for the KMT, a party that favours closer ties with Beijing, in Saturday’s legislative election. 

“My parents have always voted for the KMT. … We feel like they are more capable of making peace with China. We don’t want a war,” he said.  

While echoing Sung’s sentiments, Wu said she prefers to vote for the DPP. 

Although both parties aim to maintain the status quo, the DPP differs from the KMT ideologically in that it rejects the “One China” principle. The “One China” principle is a diplomatic consensus between mainland China and the KMT that only one “China” exists, without the sides agreeing about which country is the “real” China. 

“They’ve [the DPP] managed to safeguard Taiwan’s independence, despite the pressure from China … We can’t appease China forever; we have to stand up for ourselves,” she said.  

“Of course, I worry about war, but what can you do? It’s not really up to us whether China will invade or not, is it?” Wu said.  

“At the end of the day, you just have to live with it and carry on,” Wang said. 

“The threat of invasion isn’t going to go away any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for other issues. We have all sorts of problems, and China is not the biggest one,” she said.  

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Migration ‘used to mobilise voters’ ahead of elections in Slovakia and Poland

Migration has become a hot-button issue in Slovakia and Poland ahead of upcoming elections on September 30 and October 15, with politicians evoking the hotly debated topic to galvanise voters and governments reintroducing border checks in the region.

A surge in illegal migration along the Balkan route into Slovakia has local politicians calling for increased border control in recent weeks. This comes ahead of knife-edge legislative elections on September 30 in which Slovakia’s two-time prime minister Robert Fico and his pro-Russian populist SMER-SD party are hoping to stage a comeback.

Poland has also seen the re-emergence of migration as a hot-button issue ahead of parliamentary elections on October 15. The ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, fighting a close election against the centre-right Civic Coalition (KO) party, has made migration a central campaign issue with the objective of shoring up votes.

“For some parties further on the right, migration was always a no-go,” says Alena Kudzko, Vice President for Policy and Programming at GLOBSEC think tank in Bratislava. Yet over the past few weeks, more centrist leaning parties have started campaigning on migration in the hope of a last-minute boost in votes, she adds.

The narratives were similar across the board, with “many politicians declaring ‘we should protect Slovakia; migration is not safe for Slovaks’”, says Kudzko. Hoping to ride the wave of anti-migration sentiment prevalent in Slovak society, even the pro-European social-democratic party HLAS-SD published billboards stating, “Stop illegal migration” just weeks before the election.

A reintroduction of border checks in the region

An uptick in illegal migration on the Balkan route to central Europe has also prompted some Slovak politicians to call for tighter border controls.

Slovakia has seen a surge of migrants, many from Afghanistan and Syria, in recent months. In the first eight months of 2023, the country registered approximately 24,500 migrants who had entered illegally – most of them from Serbia through Hungary.

The rising number of illegal migrants crossing its borders prompted neighbouring Poland to introduce checks on vehicles crossing the border from Slovakia on September 25. This came after the Czech Republic and Austria reintroduced border controls with Slovakia last year to stem the flow of immigrants.

Some politicians blame Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for the sudden influx as part of an effort to boost the chances of fellow anti-migrant politician Fico of returning to office on September 30. Many migrants now in Slovakia had no difficulty entering the country from Hungary, and Orban is believed to have released more than 1,400 people from prison who had been sentenced for human trafficking.

Fico has regularly highlighted the surge in illegal migration during the election campaign. “We want to remind the Slovak government that it has all options — legislative, technical and personnel — to revive border controls on the Slovak-Hungarian border,” he said during a press conference broadcasted on Facebook.

Slovakia’s caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ludovít Odor has said it is impossible to seal the border with Hungary, which stretches over 650 km. It has sent up to 500 soldiers to help police patrolling border areas and taken measures to register migrants quickly.

Migration was ranked in a recent poll as the third item on a list of voter’s concerns, with 15% of voters saying they were worried about illegal migration. “Politicians are trying to appeal to this concerned segment of the population calling for a much harsher position on migration,” said Kudzko.

The parties that campaign on tightening migration policies know the issue is even higher on their supporters’ agenda. Between 20-30% of voters of SMER-SD and the far-right parties, SNS and Republika, said that migration is Slovakia’s biggest problem – a much greater percentage than across the entire population. 

But Kudzko believes that the illegal migration situation in Slovakia has been exaggerated in the runup to elections. “The truth is that most people don’t stay. Transit countries, like Slovakia, know that they just need to wave migrants through,” she says, while comparing the situation with that of Poland, where migrants who managed to cross the Polish-Belarusian border often continued on to Germany.

‘A fear of migration’ in Poland

In Poland, a battle is playing out between PiS and Civic Platform for the future control of parliament, with migration “being used to build up emotion and mobilise voters”, according to Andrzej Bobinski, a political analyst with Polityka Insight. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on September 29 that Poland will uphold its veto on a European Union migration pact as the bloc seeks a deal for the sharing of the responsibility for asylum seekers who reach Europe outside of official border crossings.

Poland’s leaders, expressing their opposition to the European Union’s plan to relocate migrants and asylum seekers within the bloc, have frequently argued that they have already fulfilled their migrant quota by welcoming around one million Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war.

A sentiment of fatigue with the war in Ukraine is also setting in. The far-right party Confederacja (Confederation), says Poland is not getting the gratitude it deserves for arming Ukraine and accepting its refugees.

The emergence of Confederation has put pressure on the Polish political establishment as PiS may have to accept the latter as a coalition partner to stay in power.

Several factors could play into the ruling party’s hand on Election Day. “The migrant crisis on the border with Belarus in [2021]  … caused a big scare in Poland. Pis built a wall and they keep organising events like press conferences around the wall every day,” says Bobinski.

The ruling party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski also frequently uses photos of recent events in Lampedusa. Earlier this month, some 8,500 migrants arrived on the tiny Italian fishing island in the space of a few days, overwhelming the tourist destination.

“People are not changing their views, they will either vote for PiS or KO. The only thing both parties can do is mobilise their voters which belong to highly polarised camps,” says Bobinski.

Yet, “whatever happens at the end of the day, for many people at the bottom of their soul, there is a fear of migration”, concludes Bobinski.

(With AFP) 

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Slovakia swamped by disinformation ahead of parliamentary elections

As Slovakia heads toward parliamentary elections on Saturday, the country has been flooded with disinformation, ranging from pro-Russian propaganda, lies about the situation in Ukraine and the spread of anti-migrant hate speech.

Slovakia has been coming under a barrage of online disinformation. Days before the parliamentary elections of September 30 that could lead to closer relations between this country of 5.4 million people and Moscow, voters have been flooded with disinformation from home and abroad, especially Russia.    

“The disinformation ecosystem in Slovakia … is reaching its zenith today” ahead of the vote, said Peter Duboczi, editor-in-chief at Infosecurity.sk, in an interview with AFP.

Reset, a London-based non-profit, said it had registered more than 365,000 election-related disinformation posts on Slovak social media in the first two weeks of September. The posts violating social media terms of service and containing disinformation had generated more than five times as much exposure as an average post, according to the non-profit.    

Unrestrained public discourse

The biggest spreaders of disinformation by far are Slovak politicians themselves – rather than influencers, Russian trolls or conspiracy websites, said Peter Jancarik, co-founder of the Konspiratori.sk project, a public database of Czech and Slovak disinformation websites.     

He said the biggest victory for disinformation websites is not having more online visitors or becoming more popular but seeing their rhetoric taken up by politicians in the public sphere. “For many Slovak politicians, disinformation has become an everyday communication tool.”

Former prime minister Robert Fico – a populist with pro-Russian leanings and a favourite in the polls, whose videos are among the most popular in Slovakia on Facebook, YouTube and Telegram – is a prime example.

“Robert Fico manipulates disinformation to such a degree that even the most intelligent, cultured and well-educated Slovaks find it hard to understand,” said Alain Soubigou, senior lecturer in contemporary Central European history at the Sorbonne.

Ahead of the election, Fico and the leader of the far-right Republika Milan Uhrik party have already warned voters of potential vote-rigging – a strategy also employed by Donald Trump in his failed re-election bid in 2020.      

Much of the disinformation circulating in recent weeks also serves Russian interests. On the campaign trail, Fico has said the war in Ukraine “started in 2014 when Ukrainian Nazis and fascists started murdering Russian citizens in Donbas and Luhansk” in east Ukraine – repeating a false narrative used by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to justify his invasion.

Along the same lines, Slovak National Party Chairman Andrej Danko said in July that Russian-occupied territories were not “historically Ukrainian”.

“These channels of Russian influence are not entirely new,” said Soubigou. “A large part of the political class was formed during the Communist era, and links have existed beyond the Velvet Revolution of 1989” in what was then Czechoslovakia.

A prime target for Moscow

Experts have been warning about the high risk of Russian interference in the elections for several months already. The European commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, warned in April of a “hybrid war on social media”.

Former Slovak defence minister Jaroslav Nad has accused Russia of paying Slovak citizens to tilt the elections in favour of Fico’s Smer-SD party in May.

Since the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Slovakia has been a prime target of disinformation from Moscow, whose embassy in Slovakia is a well-known source of propaganda.

It is the most active of all Russian embassies in the world if you look at Facebook data, said Tomás Krissak, an analyst at Gerulata Technologies, a start-up specialising in hybrid threats. It also spreads a lot of disinformation and manipulative narratives, he added.

A video from March 2022 showing a deputy military attaché from the Russian embassy bribing a contributor to Slovakia’s largest disinformation website caused a huge public scandal. Bratislava waited a week and then announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in response.

Jancarik said the government’s reaction is “too late, too late”. “Disinformation at this scale is not something that occurred [only] in the election period,” he noted, while pointing out the numerous insufficient attempts at regulating disinformation and the shortfalls in responsibility from the platforms themselves.  

And the pro-Kremlin propaganda appears to have taken root. According to an opinion poll conducted by Globsec, 51% of Slovaks believe Ukraine and the West were responsible for the Russian invasion.

Europe’s ‘weakest link’?

The Kremlin wants to leverage Slovakia’s struggles to extend its own influence and infiltrate public discourse in a country where distrust of the media and political parties is traditionally very high, said Jancarik. “People really feel that they are in the middle of chaos. They don’t know what the energy prices will be, we have huge inflation [and] we have a war next door,” he added.

“Slovak consumers directly suffered the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Russia was supplying 80% of our energy, and the decisions taken in Brussels hit Slovakia’s energy needs hard,” said Soubigou.

Slovakia is also facing an influx of migration from the south, a phenomenon that has fuelled hate speech from the extreme right. The country detected approximately 24,500 migrants who had entered illegally in the first eight months of the year – most of them from Serbia through Hungary

“The Kremlin is probably looking at us as the next Hungary, so they are trying to have the Trojan horse inside the EU. We are obviously the weakest link [. . .] in the EU and NATO,” Jancarik said.

Read moreIs Hungary Russia’s Trojan horse in Europe?

Yet closer relations between Bratislava and President Viktor Orban’s Hungary to the benefit of Russia are unlikely, even in the case of a Fico party victory. A Smer-SD victory in the elections would mean Fico becomes prime minister again, a position he has already held for 10 years

“Hungary is not as open a country as Slovakia, and it has not benefited from as much European investment. Furthermore, Hungary does not have the euro currency like Slovakia, so its economic policy is not as aligned to the one in Brussels.”

Soubigou went on to say that there are “antibodies” in Slovak civil society that don’t exist in Hungary. “Not all Slovaks are falling for this remote-controlled propaganda from Moscow,” he said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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