Missing link

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2011, 12:00am

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Sunday's district council elections attracted much interest because the councils' importance has been heightened by the reform package passed last year, with five councillors to be elected to the legislature and 117 to sit on the Election Committee that will choose the chief executive.

That, no doubt, was one reason why such well-known figures as Lee Cheuk-yan of the Confederation of Trade Unions, Ronny Tong Ka-wah of the Civic Party and Michael Tien Puk-sun of the newly formed New People's Party decided to run.

Interestingly, however, it turns out that voters are more concerned with what a candidate has to offer the district rather than his or her position on high-flown ideas such as universal suffrage or abolishing appointments to district councils.

The pollster Michael DeGolyer found that voters were narrowly focused on local concerns. Nearly half of respondents didn't even know their preferred candidate's stance on abolishing appointments to district councils. And only a minority indicated that they wanted their district councillor to sit on the Election Committee or in the Legislative Council.

That probably explains why political stars such as Lee and Tong lost to relatively unknown candidates. The voters were not that interested in their work for democracy, but in what they had done in the district.

The big winner in this election was the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which emerged with 136 seats. Not at all coincidentally, many years ago the DAB began cultivating the grass roots, setting up branches in each housing complex in Hong Kong.

This election shows the distance that the DAB has travelled since 2003, when it was trounced in the district council elections, leading Tsang Yok-sing to resign as chairman to accept political responsibility.

That election was held in the aftermath of the mass protest against Article 23. The DAB suffered for its support of the government on that issue, but was able to make a comeback in 2007.

Not every election can be seen through the lens of democracy versus autocracy. The pan-democratic camp needs to stop its internecine warfare. The radical People Power party decided to 'punish' the Democrats and the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood for their refusal to join the collective resignation of five legislators to force by-elections last year and for the subsequent passage of the political reform package. It fielded 47 candidates in constituencies contested by fellow pan-democrats, while allowing more than 70 seats to go uncontested.

Not surprisingly, the radicals fared poorly. Albert Chan Wai-yip failed dismally in his attempt to unseat Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan.

The pan-democrats must now put their house in order. Unless they bolster their standing in the localities, their shellacking in the districts is likely to translate into loss of seats in the legislature next year.

Paradoxically, despite the defeat of the pan-democratic camp, the polls could well have a positive impact on the schedule for universal suffrage elections. They should give Beijing confidence that its candidates can win elections - for district councils, for the legislature and for chief executive.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1