Hong Kong's politics of change

Joseph Cheng says the election outcome reflects a changing political culture in Hong Kong, even if on the surface it seems not to have greatly altered the power dynamics in the legislature

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 3:14pm

Legislative Council elections are not expected to bring about significant alterations in the balance of power. This time, the pro-establishment groups roughly retained their share of seats despite much dissatisfaction with the performance of the government and rising resentment against increasing intervention from Beijing.

They won 17 out of 35 seats in the direct elections, thanks to the resourceful and sophisticated electoral machinery of the pro-Beijing united front. The electoral system has become almost unsustainable with nine seats each in New Territories East and New Territories West, attracting 19 and 16 lists of candidates respectively. This was all rather confusing for the electorate. The government has to seriously consider dividing up the current geographical constituencies.

Under the present system, political parties or their coalitions have to cut their number of candidates and allocate supporting votes in an optimal manner in order to win the maximum number of seats. The pro-Beijing camp does this very well. In contrast, the pro-democracy groups were divided and engaged in mutual attacks, and thus were unable to fully exploit the share of the votes they secured to increase their share of seats.

The pro-democracy groups won 27 seats altogether, and improved their proportion of seats in the legislature very slightly. They were pleasantly surprised by the results in the functional constituencies, while the three seats won in the district council (second) functional constituency was a satisfactory outcome, too.

The real issue remains that despite substantial anger with the government and the expected higher voter turnout of 53 per cent (just 2 percentage points below the record high in 2004), the pro-democracy groups did not do that well in the election.

The anti-national education campaign probably helped push voters to turn out and support the pro-democracy cause; but it is also significant that the protest campaign leaders wanted to separate it from the pro-democracy parties and the election. The fact that a civil society movement wanted to distance itself from the pro-democracy political parties is not a healthy sign and something that the parties need to reflect on.

The radical pro-democracy groups' performance was impressive. In New Territories East, both "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen of People Power won, securing together over 86,000 votes. In Kowloon East, the candidates of the two groups, Andrew To Kwan-hang and Wong Yeung-tat, both lost, but they still managed to attract almost 64,000 votes. Territory-wide, the two groups collected more than 14 per cent of the votes in the direct elections. In terms of seats, they improved from three to four.

The rise of the radical wing of the pro-democracy movement reflects a gradual change in the political culture and also the exacerbation of grievances and dissatisfaction at the grass-roots level and among young people. They support strong protest action to air their grievances, and have no intention of pursuing policy changes through compromises. This certainly makes co-ordination among the pro- democracy groups increasingly difficult.

There has been criticism about the lack of co-ordination among the pro-democracy groups and the election strategies of individual parties. Basically, there was inadequate trust among them and no intention to co-operate or co-ordinate before the election. The severe attacks on the Democratic Party by People Power cost the former dearly.

The fact that there were many lists of candidates and keen competition made the outcomes of the last two seats in New Territories East and New Territories West unpredictable. As a result, with the same factors at work and a roughly similar share of votes won, the pro-democracy camp captured six out of nine seats in the former but only four out of nine in the latter.

The Leung Chun-ying administration should not be too unhappy with the present distribution of seats in the legislature. It will continue to work hard to maintain support among the proestablishment legislators; and, when it encounters difficulties, it will seek help from the central government's liaison office.

The rising discontent among the voters, reflected in the election, demands a new approach and innovative policies; this is a challenge of a different dimension.

The Chinese authorities, too, should be satisfied with the electoral performance of the pro-Beijing parties. But these pro-establishment groups have become more aggressive and less willing to compromise with the pro-business parties and the traditional rural interests. The price for the enhancement of influence is a less inclusive united front.

Chinese leaders are concerned with the strengthening local identity in Hong Kong and growing suspicions of Beijing. This worry may result in less support for a faster pace of democratisation, though the electoral system for the 2017 chief executive election does not need to be finalised until the end of 2015.

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