Election big guns and the big unknowns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2007, 12:00am

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a period of turbulence in Hong Kong politics with the start of nominations for this year's district council elections. For the first time since the 2004 Legislative Council elections, more than 3 million voters will be eligible to cast ballots, this time to fill the 405 elected seats in the 18 district councils. (In addition, the government is expected to appoint up to 100 people to sit on the district bodies.)

There is an unusually high level of interest in the low-tier elections, set for November 18, because the turnout and results will be seen as a barometer of the socio-political climate.

The last district council elections, in 2003, saw the huge impact of the so-called July 1 effect. Coming just months after the half-a-million-strong rally, the pro-government, pro-Beijing forces - including the then Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong - were punished by voters for backing the unpopular Article 23 national security bill.

The shock defeat of the DAB's veteran district councillor Ip Kwok-him in his power-base Kwun Lung constituency, by Cyd Ho Sau-lan, a candidate from outside the district, became the defining moment in those district polls.

With the July 1 effect now on the wane, it is not surprising that the pan-democratic camp is pinning its hopes on former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang to rekindle people's enthusiasm to vote en masse for its candidates.

Mrs Chan will contest December's Hong Kong Island by-election for a seat in Legco and is almost certain to face former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

The contest between Mrs Chan and Mrs Ip, who have the full backing of the pro- democracy and pro-establishment forces, respectively, will be the big unknown factor in the otherwise largely predictable district council polls. The DAB looks set to regain some of the ground it lost in the 2003 elections, in view of the smaller constituencies involved, the less-political nature of district polls and the party's enormous resources and strong network in the districts.

Against that background, the chief election strategist of the Democratic Party, Lee Wing-tat, was not being modest last week when he talked down their chances in the district polls. That appears to be a pragmatic assessment, despite the fact that hopes are high in some quarters of the pan-democratic camp that the 'Anson Chan effect' will swing votes in favour of candidates flying the democracy banner.

Unlike in Legco elections, livelihood issues and the district work record of candidates seem to be more important factors among voters in district polls.

Put simply, there is a big question mark over the effect of the so-called democracy card in the November elections.

While it is true that the Anson Chan factor could help galvanise the political atmosphere, the by-election will also cause practical, and perhaps tactical, difficulties for the pan-democratic camp, which will have to fight two battles almost at the same time.

In the run-up to the November 18 elections, the Democratic and Civic parties will be pulling out all the stops to campaign for their candidates in the districts. At the same time, their core leaders will be heavily involved in Mrs Chan's election debut.

The fact that the district council ballots will be cast two weeks before the December 2 by-election will add an air of uncertainty to the battle between Mrs Chan and Mrs Ip. A clear victory by candidates from one political camp could significantly alter the sentiments of Hong Kong Island voters.

The upcoming polls will provide a litmus test of the popularity of the two political heavyweights. But, more than that, they will be good indicators of the rival camps' ability to mobilise the populace, and of their various tactical, teamwork and leadership skills.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large. chris.yeung@scmp.com