Rise of radicalism in Hong Kong

Frank Ching says splits in the pan-democratic camp have led to the rise of radicalism, and moderates need to regain their lost ground

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 6:52am

The turnout for Sunday's Legislative Council election was much bigger than in 2008, but the big-picture outcome was almost identical. The pan-democrats won 27 of 70 seats, versus 23 of 60 seats in 2008. With more than a third of the seats, they keep their veto of major constitutional changes.

The two biggest pan-democratic parties - the Democratic and Civic parties - won a total of 502,227 votes, while the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong received 366,160 votes, yet the two democratic parties combined gained only 12 seats compared to 13 for the DAB. This reflected strategic allocation of votes by the pro-Beijing party.

By contrast, the democrats looked like novices. For example, in New Territories West, with nine seats up for grabs, the Democratic Party failed to win a single one. It fielded two lists, one headed by former chairman Lee Wing-tat and the other by his wife, Josephine Chan Shu-ying. Lee came closest, with 32,792 votes - fewer than 1,000 short of victory. Such setbacks were largely attributable to the proportional representation system used in Hong Kong.

While pan-democrats still enjoy majority support in the geographical constituencies, they face a clear downward trend. With the single exception of Hong Kong Island, their support this year fell compared to 2008. And, in 2008, support dropped across the board except for in New Territories West.

The best indicator of voter sentiment was in the "super seat" election, where all of Hong Kong was treated as one constituency. There, the pan-democrats got slightly more than half the votes and were lucky to win three of the five seats. In the geographical constituencies, they won only 18 seats, compared with 17 for the pro-establishment camp.

Part of the problem with Hong Kong's electoral system is that it rewards small parties. This has led to the fracturing of the Democratic Party, once the biggest. Today, there are groups such as the Labour Party, People Power and the NeoDemocrats, the last of which has but a single seat in Legco.

Along with small parties has come the rise in radicalism. In this election, radicals have increased their number from three to five, with consequences that can be imagined whenever Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appears on the scene.

The two trends - the decline in support for democrats and the rise of radicalism - are related. The more radical the democrats become, the more moderate voters they will lose. And, as they lose moderate support, radicals will form an increasingly larger part of their base. This does not bode well for their future. More moderate democrats, especially the three who won "super seats", should assert their influence in Legco.

In fact, the radicals called for a boycott of the "super seat" election. The fact that more than 1.5 million people cast their votes is a repudiation of the proposal. Moderate democrats should use their influence to make sure their programme - and their identity - is not hijacked by radicals who, in the long run, are not good for democracy.

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