TAIPEI – At age 18, Taiwanese can live independently, get married, stand trial as an adult, and even get called up to serve in the military – but they cannot vote in presidential and legislative elections. A quarter of a century after democratization, Taiwan’s national voting age has remained at 20 despite years of discussion and slow changes designed to enfranchise 18-year-olds.
Since 2017, Taiwanese citizens aged 18 and over can vote in national referendums and in 2023 they will officially be recognized as adults, opening the door to financial autonomy as they will be able to access loans, credit cards, and rental contracts.
Whether they will also be able to choose their president and representatives will depend on whether a constitutional amendment can overcome major obstacles.
Standing in its way, potentially, are conservative social views that still see 18 and 19-year-olds as politically immature. The move also faces opposition from the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang, one of Taiwan’s largest political parties. Supporters of the amendment include the ruling center-left Democratic People’s Party and the centrist left-leaning New Power Party – two parties popular with younger voters – as well as the centrist Taiwan People’s Party.
“I think the kids right now are quite different from the old days, obviously. They’re more mature, more informed, more educated,” said legislator Lo Chih-cheng, the director of the DPP International Affairs. “So, I think it’s the right time for them to have the right to voice their own rights.”
Lo told VOA in January that the voting amendment has moved through the committee process and the DPP hopes to see a vote by the end of March so it can be put to a referendum in November. Thresholds are high, however, as it would require the support of three-quarters of legislators and then more than half of eligible voters. It is also possible that the vote could get pushed to the next legislative session, according to authorities at the DPP International Affairs.
Taiwanese youth ignited a political storm in May 2014 when they occupied the legislature to protest a trade bill with China that they feared would give too much leverage to Beijing. While the trade agreement is long gone, the political groups and ideas that came out of the demonstrations have entered mainstream Taiwanese politics.
The Sunflower Movement is widely credited in DPP President Tsai Ing-Wen’s win the 2016 and then 2020 presidential elections after she adopted many of its platforms. Chief among them has been a move towards depicting Taiwan as an independent entity from China, even though it is claimed by the Communist Party in Beijing.
Still, there is historic skepticism towards young voters in Taiwan and greater East Asia. South Korea only lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 in 2019, following in the footsteps of Japan, which amended its laws in 2015.
Public support for lowering the voting age in Taiwan has also largely fallen along party lines.
A 2021 study by National Chengchi University on Taiwan’s elections and democratization found that while more than half of DPP supporters agreed with lowering the voting age in 2021, more than two-thirds of KMT supporters opposed it, according to polling data shared by a Lowy Institute report.
The KMT is likely aware that 18- and 19-year-olds are unlikely to vote for their party, which typically courts older or business-minded voters, said Timothy Rich, who researches electoral politics as an associate professor at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab.
“Partisans at this point could certainly anticipate that an increased youth vote would help certain parties and not others,” Rich told VOA.
Changes in the voting age are expected to benefit the DPP but also smaller parties with pro-independence platforms. While the addition of 18 and 19-year-olds votes is not expected to shake national politics, they could tip the balance in races with tight margins and possibly earn one or two more seats for small political parties.
The “biggest and least appreciated effect,” however, could be disrupting the KMT’s deep roots across Taiwan. Despite losing the support of young voters in recent presidential elections, the party still has a sizeable base and political influence in local politics. But an influx of young voters could begin to weaken their base, said Rich.
“These are often close races, ones that often do not actively court a youth vote. I could imagine that potential candidates could look at previous races, see how similar candidates performed without the youth vote, and anticipate where they would have a chance,” he said.