A plot against first-time voters?

As many as 1.8 million Taiwanese voters in the 20-24 age group, 10 percent of the about 18 million eligible voters, are expected to cast their ballot for the first time in Saturday’s elections, a number that could be a deciding factor in what has been a neck-and-neck presidential race.

As a young democracy that held its first presidential election in 1996 after nearly half a century of authoritarian rule, the impressive voter turnout in major elections — which this year will once again be above 80 percent — is commendable, and highlights the commitment of Taiwanese to a system that became theirs after years of democratic struggle by their forefathers.

Sadly, it now appears that not all voters are equal.

Last year the Taiwanese government announced that, for the first time in the nation’s history, the presidential and legislative elections would be merged. As a consequence, the presidential election, which historically had been held on March 20, was moved up by more than two months, to January 14.

Although the authorities claimed the measure was adopted to cut expenses on expensive electoral campaigns — and no doubt holding the elections concurrently will achieve this aim — it also leaves some voters at a disadvantage. And this includes young voters.

The principal reason why the move has been called unfair to young voters is the fact that the election will coincide with the final week of exams for many students. As a large number of students of voting age go to school away from home, many will not have time to return home to vote.

Conversely, the timing of the election benefits wealthier and more mobile Taiwanese who will be returning to Taiwan for the Lunar New Year holidays, which this year fall one week after the elections.

While the divide can only be delineated imperfectly, it is generally agreed that for generational reasons (young Taiwanese tend to identify more with Taiwan than older generations, many of whom have a stronger sense of attachment to China), first-time and young voters tend to favor the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), while the opposite applies to the more than 1 million Taiwanese who currently work in China, mostly in or around Shanghai, most of whom support the KMT over the belief that the party can better ensure their economic well-being by accelerating trade with China.

Whether the drawbacks and upshots of choosing January 14 for the combined elections were mere accidental offshoots resulting from cost-saving requirements or something more nefarious is a question that has yet to be answered. However, the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan has speculated that the move may have been a calculated effort to give President Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT an advantage in the race, in which whether a few hundred thousand first-time voters can exercise their right to take part in the election can be all it takes to determine who will run the country for the next four years.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news chief and a reporter at the Taipei Times newspaper and a correspondent on China for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

[Note that the number of 1st time voters has been corrected from an earlier version of this post. Jon]