Panned democrats left licking their wounds
Tanna Chong and Peter So
Insufficient district work and inability to mobilise voters are the chief reasons behind the pan-democrats' defeat in Sunday's district council elections, experts say. And the results will have some bearing on the city's future democracy movement.
Some pan-democratic leaders yesterday tried to put on a brave face and blamed other factors for their disappointing results. But observers said the defeat should be a wake-up call for them ahead of the crucial Legislative Council election next year.
Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung of Chinese University said the government-loyalist camp had managed to build momentum from their gains in the 2007 district council elections, to turn the screw on the pan-democrats. 'They have gained more district seats and established more footholds [since the 2007 election], and now they have greater resources to canvass for support,' Choy said.
'It's also clear that parties with better district work records, such as the NeoDemocrats and the Neighbourhood & Workers' Service Centre (NWSC), have done better.'
NeoDemocrats won eight out of the 10 seats they ran for and NWSC got five out of seven.
The performance of the two main pan-democratic parties - the Civic Party and the Democratic Party, was disappointing for their supporters.
In both cases, the absolute numbers seem to suggest only moderate setbacks for them. Alan Leong Kah-kit, Civic Party leader, yesterday tried to put a positive spin on the result. He said the loss of one seat and 3,000 votes should not be considered a heavy defeat. Leong said the party suffered only a 0.4 per cent decrease in the overall vote share.
In 2007, the newly founded Civic Party got 3.6 per cent of votes out of the 1.15 million voters. They won eight out of the 42 seats they ran for. The Civic Party's presence in the district councils grew to 12 seats through by-elections and some incumbent district councillors joining the party. This year they fielded 41 candidates but only won seven seats.
The Democratic Party also tried to put on a brave face. Its chairman, Albert Ho Chun-yan, said the campaign was not a failure.
'We have received more votes compared with 2007,' he said.
The Democratic Party won 47 out of the 132 seats they contested. They actually gained 31,700 more votes than four years ago.
But the absolute figures could not mask the extent of the two parties' failure. Compared with 2007, the proportion of Democratic Party candidates winning has dropped by 19 per cent. It is alarming that the Civic Party received 3,000 fewer votes than four years ago - given that there were 700,000 more voters this time.
At its peak, the Democratic Party had 59 district council seats and the Civic Party 12. After Sunday's election, their presence in the district councils has greatly reduced, to 47 and 7 respectively.
Ho admitted that the government-loyalist camp further pulled away from the Democratic Party in ability to mobilise supporters to vote.
That was why star candidates of the pan-democrats lost seats even though in absolute terms they managed to keep or even gain more votes. Faced with an opponent that is more organised, better-co-ordinated and more resourceful, just keeping old standards proved inadequate.
Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan - beaten by Liberal Party newcomer Joseph Chan Ho-lim - got 820 votes in the Central and Western District constituency - 25 more than she got in 2007 when she won the seat. But the constituency this time had 655 new voters, and almost all of them voted for Joseph Chan. 'In 2007, 1,660 Peak voters cast their ballot, but this time my competitor alone received 1,505 votes,' said Tanya Chan.
'That shows [Joseph] Chan's ability to mobilise support.'
In a sense, the pan-democrats were right to say they did not 'lose' - they were simply outgrown.
That applied in the case of Lee Wing-tat, the Democratic Party heavyweight who failed to hold his seat in Lai Wah, Kwai Tsing. Lee actually got 233 more votes this time. But he still could not catch Chu Lai-ling from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who snatched 1,923 votes.
That was remarkable given that four years ago the DAB candidate, Yeung Man-tat, only managed to get 855 votes in the same district. In four years, the DAB's support in Lai Wah had more than doubled.
The biggest upset in this year's elections was the defeat of the Confederation of Trade Union's Lee Cheuk-yan to Lau Kwai-yung, an inexperienced Federation of Trade Unions candidate. Lee admitted that the pan-democrats had to improve their networking ability.
FTU President Cheng Yiu-tong attributed Lau's shock victory to the team's district work.
'She has been serving the Tin Shui Wai district for six years and the whole team showed a powerful will when squaring up against the political star [Lee],' Cheng said.
Civic Party members blamed their poor showing on unpopular legal battles they supported against the government - such as the fight for foreign domestic helpers to be eligible to apply for permanent residency in Hong Kong, and the judicial review that delayed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.
Leader Leong said the party had been the target of a fierce smear campaign over the past two months.
Leong denied the party was too detached from the grass-roots. But he admitted they needed to do better in local district work. 'It is difficult to make a young rising barrister or engineer spend 10 hours daily working in a district for 10 years of his prime - when there is no chance that the party can rule,' Leong said. 'So there is a need to overhaul the district council system and give more power to the councillors ... district politics should not be merely about delivering welfare and interests.'
He said it was time for pan-democrats to sit down and think what to do next. 'This is a hard lesson for us when the democracy movement has come to this stage,' he said.
The League of Social Democrats, which had all its four incumbent councillors lose and yielded no seats, admitted failure. Andrew To Kwan-hang quit his role as the group's chairman after losing his Choi Yuen North seat in Wong Tai Sin.
The radical pan-democrats People Power could only maintain one of its two incumbent seats.
Additional reporting by Stuart Lau and Ada Lee