Parties find it hard to lure young voters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 October, 2008, 12:00am

In the recent Legislative Council election, all political parties worked hard to win the support of young voters. As competition was keen, and only one or two percentage points often determined success or failure, this most malleable segment of the electorate became a crucial battleground.

Most major parties presented some attractive second-tier candidates; and even when they were not in the top spots, they had more opportunities for media exposure. The internet was fully exploited; YouTube, Facebook, and the like, emerged as significant channels of communication.

The voter turnout rate, however, was almost 11 percentage points lower than in 2004; and there was speculation that the rate among young voters was even more disappointing. With the conspicuous exception of the League of Social Democrats, almost all the major parties seemed to be unsuccessful in their attempts to lure young voters.

The Liberal Party's pro-business platform and the seniority of its principal candidates certainly reduced its attraction to young people. Its second-tier candidates were not given a significant role, either.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong got two young candidates elected: Starry Lee Wai-king and Gary Chan Hak-kan, both in their early 30s. This demonstrated clearly its determination to cultivate a new generation of political stars. But its pro-government stance has limited appeal to young people, who are often anti-establishment. The DAB did attract a lot of young professionals, however. They are eager to establish their business networks on the mainland and expect the DAB to be useful in this area.

The Federation of Trade Unions has a solid grass-roots base, but young people did not identify strongly with it in the election. A few pro-establishment candidates who claimed to be neutral, however, came up with innovative ideas to secure young voters' support; and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Scarlett Pong Oi-lan and Priscilla Leung Mei-fun did well.

Within the pro-democracy camp, the Democratic Party, Civic Party and the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL) were unimpressive in terms of winning young people's votes. The Democratic Party and the ADPL mainly depended on their networks cultivated throughout the years, as well as their district council members. However, they retained considerable attraction among the traditional pro-democracy supporters.

The Civic Party focused on cultivating its second-tier candidates; and presented a few young political stars. Its supporters largely consisted of middle-aged, middle-class people with a tertiary education.

The League of Social Democrats' radicalism proved very attractive to the younger generation; and it enjoyed predominant support among teenage netizens.

Young people in Hong Kong are inclined to support democracy. But their enthusiasm is limited and their commitment is weak. The appeal of democracy, the rule of law and human rights alone are often insufficient to secure their votes.

Radical statements may appear attractive and are likely to win their votes - but it remains very hard to mobilise them to more substantial participation. They want quality of life; in this aspect, probably no political party can give them much satisfaction.

The parties' various electoral platforms did not appeal to them or grab their attention. A small number of 'star' candidates were probably attractive to some young voters, but the sustainability of this attraction is in doubt.

Young voters' political apathy is a severe challenge to the promotion of the democracy cause in Hong Kong. It is an equally tough test for the strengthening of social solidarity and the legitimacy of the government.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong