Expect messy election but with unexpected outcomes
Predicting the outcome of elections is a mug's game unless you live in North Korea or China, or focus exclusively on the certainties of the rotten borough functional constituencies in Hong Kong's own bizarre system. However, one prediction can confidently be made about the upcoming Legislative Council poll - it will be the most messy to date and yield some unexpected outcomes.
Most of the certainties in previous elections no longer apply. Political parties are in a state of flux and new divisions have emerged while the electorate has become more politicised.
Perhaps, ironically, the only parties who can enter these elections with a confident unambiguous position are the radical League of Social Democrats and People Power - they, too, are a product of a split. However, they have a well-defined position with a loyal group of backers, enough to win some seats. Voting for these radicals is attractive to people who are fed up with the system and are not interested in nuance.
Over in the so-called pro-government camp is Hong Kong's biggest, best funded and best organised party - the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. However, its canny managers are wary of being what they are supposed to be - that is, pro-government - because proximity to an unpopular government is problematic and so they will struggle to create some distance. Having benefited from a rigged election system that gave seats to less popular candidates in previous elections, its very strength means that the DAB will see many of its votes 'wasted' as less popular candidates get second- and third-tier allocations in the mega-constituencies originally designed to thwart the popular democrats.
The democratic camp has split and split again, with the radicals peeled away, new parties like the Labour Party emerging, and a sense of drift elsewhere. The Democratic Party looks better on paper than on the ground where it has lost many activists and is wavering between projecting a radical or moderate image. Yet it will undoubtedly retain a large measure of support.
On this side of the fence, the Civic Party is most vulnerable as it is likely to suffer from a recently acquired more radical image and the principled stand taken by some of its members on residence rights for foreign domestic workers. It is ironic that a party founded and made popular by people notable for defence of the rule of law is likely to be punished for having practised what they preach. Fairness, however, is not part of the political game.
Meanwhile, new parties, like the Labour Party, will battle to distinguish themselves from other members of the democratic camp without splitting the vote and letting seats fall to pro-government supporters.
Over in that camp is the largely hapless Liberal Party, which may get some crumbs from the election table but will continue to rely on its legislators in the rotten boroughs.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, meanwhile, has shown herself to be a formidable campaigner but her New People's Party remains essentially a one-person show, not helped by the fact that it's second most prominent member is the widely disliked Michael Tien Puk-sun, a refugee from his brother's Liberal Party.
Many voters are thoroughly disillusioned with Hong Kong's scandal-ridden political system and have started to regard Legco with contempt. This feeling may translate itself into a lower voter turnout but that should not be confused with political disinterest. As the growing size of street demonstrations shows, anyone taking that view is likely to be confounded.
The level of political passion is rising and will make for a more acrimonious election, but only the enemies of democracy will say that this adds up to a rejection of the desire for an elected government.
If the current system of government was working fabulously, it could be said that the passion for democracy would dissipate. But not even the best friends of the current administration can pretend that this is so. Thus, we can look forward to a very messy election without an outcome that would produce solutions.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur