Dawning of a new age in battle at the ballot box
If you believe the famous line of former British prime minister Harold Wilson - that a week is a long time in politics - then our politicians won't be too concerned about what will be happening in 25 years' time.
They should be. Hong Kong's population is ageing - in 2033, 27 per cent of Hongkongers will 65 or above - but our voting population is ageing even faster.
The issue was starkly illustrated in the latest profile of registered voters, released last week by the Registration and Electoral Office, and political parties and candidates who are mapping out strategies for the Legislative Council election in September would be well advised to take note.
While various political camps are pondering whether they have won or lost points in the row over the passports and salaries of political appointees, the impact of changes in the voting-age population on their political fortunes has gone largely unnoticed.
Compared with the 2004 voter register, voters in all age groups above 56, except the 66 to 70 group, recorded increases of more than 20 per cent. The most striking increase was found in the 56 to 60 age group, which witnessed an increase of 45.6 per cent.
The ageing of the voter population is more dramatic than that of the population overall. Seventeen per cent of registered voters are 66 or above, while about 12 per cent of the population as a whole are 65 or above.
Towards the lower end of the age spectrum, the number of voters aged between 21 and 25 dropped from about 227,000 in 2004 to 195,000 this year, a 14.1 per cent decrease. The number of voters aged 36 to 40 dropped 14.4 per cent, while those in the 41 to 45 bracket fell by about 15 per cent.
If conventional wisdom about voter preference in different age groups holds true, the pan-democratic camp should be worried about an ageing electorate.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, who is seeking re-election in New Territories West in September, says older voters are more inclined to support candidates from government-friendly parties.
'From our past experience, 60 per cent of voters aged above 60 favour candidates from the pro-government camp,' he says. 'The situation is particularly obvious in run-down districts and public housing estates, where 65 per cent may cast votes for candidates fielded by pro-government parties. I am having headaches after learning that the number of voters aged 71 or above has jumped by 21 per cent.'
He said the pan-democratic camp was no match for pro-government parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, in mobilising the elderly.
'The DAB has a strong network and ample resources at the grass roots. They have the manpower to knock on the doors in public housing estates to help elderly people to register as voters,' Mr Lee says. 'The DAB even provides incentives like 'gift packets' to the elderly to woo them to register as voters.'
He adds that elderly voters are more easily mobilised to vote on polling day.
Ma Ngok, associate professor with Chinese University's department of government and public administration, attributes the DAB's landslide victory in last year's district council polls to ageing voters. Nearly 400,000 eligible voters were 71 or above, an 11.6 per cent increase over 2004.
'The DAB have been putting their focus on digging up the elderly to register as voters in the past few years, while the pan-democratic parties spend more effort in mobilising young people during the voter registration campaign,' Dr Ma says. 'The results of district council elections showed the DAB's efforts have paid off.'
The DAB won 115 of the 405 elected seats in the district council polls to the Democrats' 59.
For the pan-democratic camp, another worrisome change in the political demographics is the decline in the number of youngest voters, and those in their 30s and 40s, who are seen as the major support base. According to a survey by the Chinese University's Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies in October 2004, a month after the Legco election, 18.2 per cent of respondents between 18 and 30 said they favoured the Democratic Party compared with 9.1 per cent who backed the DAB.
Institute associate director Timothy Wong Ka-ying says voters aged 50 or above are more inclined to support pro-establishment groups. 'Judging from the changes in the voter population, the pan-democratic camp could face a tougher battle in September's election,' he says.
Mr Lee notes that with an extra 72,600 voters aged 71 or above, each of the five geographical constituencies will have 14,000 voters from the age group. 'It could help swing the outcome of the last seat in some constituencies,' he says.
DAB vice-chairman Lau Kong-wah disputes the assumption that older voters are more inclined to support government-friendly parties. 'We do not target any specific age groups during our voter registration drive,' he says.
The DAB leader also played down the claim that they use gifts to woo the elderly to register, saying pan-democratic groups also gave souvenirs to people whom they called on to register as voters.
The only consolation for the pan-democratic camp may be the 7.8 per cent increase in the number of voters between 18 and 20 since 2004. But the pan-democratic camp has to pray for a deviation from the worldwide trend of low voter turnout among that age group.
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, says young voters do not necessarily support pan-democratic candidates, in the light of the relatively harmonious political atmosphere in recent years.
Mr Lee says his primary concern is whether the pan-democratic camp can retain the 60 per cent of votes in September that they secured in previous polls.
'We would risk losing a few seats if our vote share drops below 55 per cent.'