Legco election strategies hurt democracy cause

Regina Ip says the electoral strategies that played on people's fears and discontent brought victory for some, but ultimately left Hong Kong's democratic cause no better off

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 3:24am

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?" Voters face this question in every "first past the post" election. But in a system of proportional representation, where every faction can have a voice, political parties have figured out that a winner does not need to be the fairest. All kinds of candidates - the good, the bad, the ugly - can win, so long as he or she has clinched the minimum necessary to rise above the threshold.

Against this understanding, candidates for this year's Legislative Council election went into battle with strategies devised to leverage their strengths. All understood it is not enough to have high name recognition and even a high popularity rating as a lawmaker. A candidate must be able to mobilise their supporters: Get Out the Vote! - as campaign experts stress in Western democracies.

There are basically two broad campaign strategies to achieve this - mobilise your voters by making sure they love you or hate your enemy, or by way of a loyal, tightly knit ground organisation, or both.

This election bore witness to both strategies. The Civic Party decided to repeat its strategy of four years ago. By placing candidates with stronger popular appeal in second place on electoral tickets in New Territories West and on Hong Kong Island, the party hoped to be able to capture two seats each in both constituencies by mobilising sympathy votes. The strategy worked only partially. The party managed to parachute their newcomers into Legco, but not without the old guards losing their seats and the strategy cannibalising the votes for fellow democrats.

More significantly, supporters in the pan-democratic camp have learned that to rally their base, it is not enough to have an iconic candidate whom (hopefully) everyone loves to love or save. People's emotions can be stirred even more if they are shown something they fear or hate. The government's national education scheme played handily into this game plan.

Opponents of national education lost no chance to smear it as "brainwashing" and, soon, it became a metaphor for everything that is fake and rotten in mainland China, and what Hong Kong people, despite being part of the same country, have long sought to keep out.

Students with strong party connections went round chanting slogans forcing pro-establishment candidates to state their black-and-white opposition to national education. To maximise media coverage, students organised a hunger strike and sit-in at the government headquarters, pressing for a dialogue with the chief executive, and creating scenes of mass gatherings reminiscent of June 4.

Tension peaked in the run-up to polling day. Not surprisingly, after the chief executive announced major concessions to defuse the tension, protesters clad in black announced an end to the hunger strike and sit-in - just in time for their followers to head to the polling booths.

It is hard to estimate scientifically the extent of the impact of the national education fear on the middle class. But there is no doubt fears have been stoked, lending support to candidates who pledged to fight communism and safeguard the "core values" of Hong Kong.

Despite the highly successful mass mobilisation, at the end of the fight, the pro-establishment camp still managed to win a record number of directly elected geographical seats, narrowing the distribution of votes between the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps to 56.6 to 43.4 per cent. The biggest winner is, as expected, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which not only won three more seats, but also succeeded in skilful deployment of its "iron-clad" votes to enable newcomers in New Territories West and Hong Kong Island to win highly prized seats.

Ironically, the democratic camp managed to maintain a decisive block of 27 "veto" votes by winning new seats in the derided functional constituencies, and through the rise of the new radicals.

For students of democracy and proponents of a faster pace of democratic development in Hong Kong, the following questions deserve critical analysis. It is commonly assumed that popular votes confer a strong mandate on the elected candidate, because the votes represent the will of the people. But where votes are cast thanks to a powerful party machinery, parachuting mediocre candidates into positions of power, is that a vindication of democracy?

Alternatively, if candidates win by stoking hatred and fear, aggravating the underlying tensions between mainland China and little Hong Kong, is that in the long-term interest of Hong Kong?

At electoral forums, few policy issues of substance were discussed as so-called "debates" degenerated into shouting matches. The question remains whether people have paid sufficient attention to policy, as rational voters are supposed to. Finally, with the rise of the radicals in the next Legco, no doubt a reflection of deep-rooted discontent with the wealth gap and stagnation in society, how will the Leung Chun-ying administration fare?

For advocates of democracy as a panacea, there's plenty of food for thought.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party