Taiwan’s presidential candidates are waging an all-out charm offensive to woo millions of young people in the lead-up to this weekend’s election, conscious their votes could push them over the finish line.

Both President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term, and challenger Han Kuo-yu have taken to social media and television with meme-filled appeals for support as they lay out competing visions for the island’s future.

Of the 19.3 million Taiwanese eligible to vote on Saturday, 3.1 million are below 30 years old, and 1.81 million are first-time voters, according to official data.

Tsai, the frontrunner in the polls, has appeared the most comfortable winning over youngsters, who tend to be more progressive on social issues and suspicious of China.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory to eventually be united with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.

In a move that caused significant social divisions, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legalised same-sex marriage last year — a first in Asia.

They also portray themselves as defenders of democratic values against Beijing’s authoritarianism.

Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Tsai Ing-wen.

Both issues are drums the DPP have beaten relentlessly in their appeals to young voters.

 Viral videos 

In a video posted to her Facebook page this week that garnered more than one million views, Tsai invoked the months of clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as a warning for the future.

The clip begins with Taiwanese youngsters going about their lives, playing video games and dancing, before switching to scenes of unrest in the former British colony.

“A few hundred kilometres away, many youths are defending their freedoms with blood and tears,” the narrator says, urging the public to “speak loudly that we choose to stand with democracy, with freedom”.

Another viral video featured veteran pop star Jutopi rapping about issues such as the Tsai government raising wages, legalising same-sex marriage and promoting democracy.

“The government is doing things for us, we are happy, blessed citizens,” raps long-haired Jutopi, wearing a three-piece suit and fedora.

“We do not bow our heads to others. We are not in the hands of others,” he adds.

Han Kuo-yu and Carrie Lam. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Analysts say a high youth turnout would likely benefit the 63-year-old Tsai.

But that has not stopped Han’s more socially conservative Kuomintang from courting their vote.

Han, 62, favours warmer ties with China and has built a campaign around accusing the DPP of imperilling Taiwan’s long-term future by provoking Beijing.

He has projected a plain-talking everyman image to appeal to grassroots voters, and has embraced nicknames such as “bald guy”.

In a recent appearance on a talk show popular with younger viewers, Han displayed his characteristic ability to poke fun at himself as he joked about his hair loss and unveiled an ability to walk on his knees with his legs crossed in the lotus position.

The interview has racked up nearly six million views on YouTube.

When the host apologised for constantly making fun of him on the programme, Han replied: “Continue. Everyone is happy. It’s good in a society with a democratic and free atmosphere… Just one request, no jokes about my hairline!”

At televised debates and forums with youngsters he has announced youth-friendly economic promises such as subsidised student exchange programmes and loans for start-ups.

Darren Lu, a 22-year-old student from Kaohsiung, said he supports warmer ties with China as promoted by Han.

“Only with more people coming to Taiwan can we spur economic growth,” he told AFP. “I think it’s not feasible without stable cross-Strait relations.”

But Taipei college student Alice Wu said she is rooting for Tsai.

“I think her reform policies would be good for young people in the long term,” the 20-year-old told AFP.

“And having her as leader again would be good for the status of women.”


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