Four themes that have defined Hong Kong’s Legco elections tussles so far
Leung Chun-ying looms less large than before, while localists provide new threat to pan-democrats
Candidates in the Legislative Council elections have been crossing verbal swords at numerous forums over the past two weeks and yet no camp appears to be in the lead for a big win and no single issue seems to be capturing voters’ attention. At least that is the picture observers are painting at the halfway mark of the campaign in the run-up to polling day on September 4. Uncertainty and chaos marked the start of the hustings when six potential candidates advocating independence were banned under rules announced less than 48 hours before nominations began. And more than a dozen veteran lawmakers from parties across the spectrum left the scene. Entering it is a band of young localists, or candidates who demand varying degrees of greater autonomy from the mainland, leaving traditional pan-democrats anxious about losing ground. Here is a look at four issues defining the campaign so far:
1. Chief executive, who? CE election takes back seat in debates
The question of whether Leung Chun-ying deserved support for a second term once seemed like an albatross around the necks of pro-establishment candidates. In the February by-election, the pro-Beijing camp’s hot favourite Holden Chow Ho-ding was embarrassed time and again when he was grilled by Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu on whether he would support the unpopular Leung to run again next year. Chow could not bring himself to answer either way, because his party had no stance and any answer was potentially costly. A “yes” could turn off undecided voters; a “no” could be risky because Beijing had not yet signalled whether it would back Leung. His ambivalence made him appear shifty.
But by last month, pan-democrats could no longer drag down rivals with the Leung question. With outgoing Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah indicating interest and thus presenting more choices, it is much easier for pro-Beijing candidates to dodge the question.
The model answer has been provided by Chow’s colleague, Starry Lee Wai-king. The chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said at a radio forum: “We are very happy to see that both Jasper Tsang and John Tsang have indicated their interest in the job. It’s expected and reasonable for DAB to support Jasper Tsang, the party’s founding chairman, should he throw his hat into the ring.”
2. Slanging matches on crowded battlefield
With a record number of 84 lists of candidates vying for 35 seats in geographical constituencies, the forums have been reduced to arenas for bickering and mud-slinging.
The election watchdog’s “equal time” principle, which requires broadcasters to allocate exactly the same amount of time to each candidate in a debate, means each team of candidates has barely a few minutes to introduce their platforms and take on their rivals. The most chaotic battlefield is New Territories East, where 22 lists of candidates are vying for nine seats.
The debates have become superficial and fragmented, said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University.
“There is not a single issue that was thoroughly discussed by the candidates,” Ma said. “The debates have provided little reference value for voters to decide whom to vote for.”
He also observed that the chaos stood in stark contrast to the last election in 2012, which coincided with the days-long protests over the national education classes controversy. Candidates then had to state their stance whether they agreed with the government’s proposal to introduce what opponents called “brainwashing classes” for national education in schools. The widespread opposition to the proposal helped pan-democrats amass votes.
In the current campaign, there have been forums dedicated to certain livelihood issues but the response has been lukewarm. At a forum on welfare policy organised by the Society for Community Organisation, three out of 15 candidates in Kowloon West were absent, and two others left it to lower-ranking colleagues, who are second on their candidates’ list, to attend the event.
3. Infighting among localists
The entry of a dozen localists to this election has added a new dimension to the battlefield, which used to be fights between only pan-democrats and the pro-establishment.
Unlike the six candidates who have been disqualified for their unequivocal advocacy for Hong Kong independence, these localists make varying calls, ranging from “sustaining the Basic Law” with amendments that protect Hongkongers’ interest to advancing self-determination.
But they are hardly marching in solidarity.
At a televised forum for Hong Kong Island constituency, former Occupy Central student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung sought to differentiate himself from Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, after Cheng identified himself as “the only localist candidate in the constituency”. “I call for self-determination, but he talks about sustaining the Basic Law. Note the difference,” Law retorted.
Law’s party, Demosisto, has pledged to organise a referendum in 10 years for Hongkongers to decide on the city’s future. It neither advocates independence nor rules it out as an option in the future referendum.
Some localists have also come under attack by older radicals. At the same forum, Christopher Lau Gar-hung accused Cheng of being a “fake” localist, arguing that his advocacy of “sustaining” the Basic Law was no different from supporting Beijing’s continued grip over Hong Kong. Lau’s People Power, a non-localist group that played a key role in Legco filibustering and was once considered radical, is seen by critics to be the most vulnerable to losing its base to the new radicals on the block, the localists.
4. Up in arms over rolling poll
The rolling poll conducted by Hong Kong University’s public opinion programme, which has served as a useful reference for parties and voters in the past, has come under scrutiny for its methodology, in particular for its small sample size.
The poll, sponsored by three media organisations and a pro-democracy group, has shown some key candidates of established parties in both camps – who are second-generation members running to replace their veterans – lingering at marginal positions and even falling out. It also shows several localists could win seats.
While People Power and the League of Social Democrats have publicly doubted whether the poll is scientific, other parties have responded by boosting their campaigns and, in some cases, making “emergency appeals” to voters.
The Democratic Party has invited former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang to canvass for its three rookie candidates. Its former chairman, Dr Yeung Sum, said it was the first time that Chan is offering such “wide-scale” help to the party, which he feared was now facing an “unprecedented challenge”.
“We are worried that voters would decide to give up on our candidates and vote for others because of the poll results,” he said, adding Chan’s backing would help appeal to middle-class and moderate voters.
The poll findings have also troubled DAB’s Gary Chan Hak-kan, an incumbent seeking his third term as a lawmaker for New Territories East, where seven pro-establishment candidates and 15 others are bidding for nine seats.
“The poll and the fact that there are many candidates in my camp indeed suggest my situation is not optimistic,” Chan said. He has invited his party’s heavyweights, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and Tam Yiu-chung, to stump in his neighbourhoods. Whether their presence can save him will be clear, come election day.
For a full list of candidates standing in the Legislative Council elections, please see http://multimedia.scmp.com/legcocandidates/
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam