Hong Kong Legislative Council election candidates go down to the wire
Just days before polling, the race may hang on unpredictable factors, including the failure of parties to explain their platforms and the way that localists and rural forces are stealing the limelight
1. The unpredictability of pre-election polling
The record number of candidates and the entry of a band of localists mean voters have the widest ever range of choice. Two public opinion polls, by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme and the Hong Kong Research Association, show that the margin between many candidates in directly elected constituencies is very close.
In New Territories East, where 22 lists are vying for nine seats, Thursday’s HKU rolling poll showed that except for the top three – the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu and the DAB’s Elizabeth Quat and Gary Chan Hak-kan – the race for the 12 hopefuls immediately following them is too close to call. Scoring a popularity rating ranging from 3 per cent to 7 per cent, all 12 have an “equal chance of winning”.
In New Territories West, where 20 lists are contesting nine seats, Civic Passion’s Cheng Chung-tai ranked third with a 10 per cent popularity rating in Thursday’s poll – but just a day earlier, the localist fell out of the race in the other poll, ranking 13th with just 2.5 per cent.
The ever changing results are unsettling those shown to be at risk. The Democratic Party panicked. “We were frightened by the rolling poll results,” said party veteran Cheung Man-kwong, who is helping his colleagues’ campaign “We needed to urgently spare money to place advertisements on public transport and in newspapers to support our candidates.”
The Civic Party convened an urgent press conference urging supporters to get friends and family members to support three of its candidates whose performance slipped in the polls. “They were up high before – and then probably people thought they did not need to worry about us and decided to support other parties,” Bill Lay Yan-piau, the party’s general secretary, said.
2. Lack of debate on major issues
Although major political parties have their platforms, most of their ideas dissipate when they cross swords at election forums.
The Democratic Party, for example, sells its track record of hard work tackling livelihood issues including the lead-in-water scandal and bid-rigging in renovation work for residential buildings.
The Civic Party says a “Convention on Hong Kong Affairs” should be convened by the people to discuss a review of the Basic Law, cross-border livelihood issues and ideas for finding the way ahead after 2047, when the “one-country, two-systems” principle expires. The several localist groups, however, advocate different forms of self-determination.
Why haven’t these platforms been thoroughly discussed? The presence of too many candidates and lack of time is the main reason. With 12 to 22 candidate lists running in each geographical constituency, each team is given barely two minutes to introduce their platforms. When they have a chance to take on their competitors, they tend to go after scandals or make them state their stance on controversial issues such as national security legislation.
If any social issues are ever discussed, retirement protection and asylum seekers usually dominate. But again, candidates exploit such matters to smear others rather than to delve deep into the issue.
At a forum in New Territories East last week, Gary Chan Hak-kan of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and Tang Ka-piu of the Federation of Trade Unions called on Hong Kong to quit the UN Convention Against Torture. They said the city’s resources had been “abused” by “fake refugees” from South Asia. They then slammed Labour Party candidate Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung for supporting refugees having the right to work.
Some localists share the same tendency. At another televised forum, Youngspiration’s Wong Chun-kit compared his group’s proposal on retirement protection with that of Labour Party veteran Lee Cheuk-yan. But stopping short of explaining its merits and demerits, the 29-year-old only wanted to attack Lee’s scheme for including new immigrants from the mainland, whom in his view did not deserve the benefit.
3. Allegations and scandal
Sing Tao Daily News, Headline Daily and Eastweek, which are all in the same media group have been publishing reports gunning after the integrity of candidates.
They first hit the information technology functional constituency, with Headline Daily charging in a front-page report that the pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union was rigging votes. The report, citing sources, said the union had arranged for as many as 1,500 IT teachers who were education-sector voters to move to the IT sector to help pan-democrat Charles Mok’s re-election bid.
The case was dismissed by the Registration and Electoral Office, which responded to state only 72 teachers had switched to the IT sector in the past four years. The union is demanding an apology from the newspaper. In the latest twist on Friday, Headline Daily said it could not confirm its earlier projection on the IT sector and was withdrawing it.
In a report on Friday, Headline Daily admitted its August 25 report claiming 1,500 members of the Professional Teachers’ Union had switched to the IT sector was only an “inference”, which was significantly different from the Registration and Electoral Office’s response to its subsequent inquiry that, compared with 2012, only 72 voters in the education sector had moved to the IT sector. “We have decided to retract our inference,” the paper said.
But the newspaper did not offer an apology for the report. “During our reporting process, our newspaper adhered to the principle of fairness and impartiality,” it said. “We hope to continue to make improvements in future.”
Charles Mok demanded Headline Daily on Friday offer a public apology by Saturday for its report.
Another target was pan-democrat Kenneth Leung of the accountancy sector, who is also seeking re-election. Leung was accused by Eastweek of having had an affair with his former assistant, Crystal Chow Ching, and offering her a favourable remuneration package. Leung responded by disclosing his office expense details – including a HK$15,000 monthly salary to Chow – and referring the matter to his lawyers.
The press group’s latest focus is Ricky Wong Wai-kay, who became a hero to opponents of Leung Chun-ying in 2013 after the chief executive’s cabinet denied his HKTV the free-to-air television licence he craved.
In a front page report on Thursday, Sing Tao accused the Hong Kong Island candidate of sexually assaulting a subordinate in 2012, claiming it had received a complaint letter written by the woman to the chief executive. Wong gave a categorical denial, calling the attack “political suppression”.
4. The new localist force
After six independence advocates were disqualified, all eyes turned to the dozen localists who were allowed to enter the race. Except for Kowloon East’s Chan Chak-to, others advocating self-determination have been ambivalent about their stance. Some were even exposed to have a flimsy understanding of their agenda.
Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, a Hong Kong Island candidate, is a case in point. His Civic Passion, which is allied with Wong Yuk-man’s Proletariat Political Institute and Horace Chin Wan-kan’s Hong Kong Resurgence Order, has adopted Chin’s idea to “sustain the Basic Law” with amendments to protect Hongkongers’ rights against mainland intrusion.
But the localist repeatedly struggled to explain the concept when he was grilled by rivals and even the hosts at different election forums.
This week, when the host at Now TV asked him about the steps laid down in Article 159 of the Basic Law for amending the mini-constitution, Cheng replied: “We’re not trying to make it happen using the current system.”
The host cut him short: “If you don’t want to follow the system, why do you want to sustain the Basic Law?”
Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said most localists had been “evasive” on the independence issue. “They may not want to be disqualified by advocating independence, but the idea of sustaining the Basic Law seems to me full of contradictions,” Ma said.
A second localist group, Youngspiration, tried to impress voters with an ambitious proposal that Hong Kong should exploit natural gas resources in an “exclusive economic zone”, a term used in international law to delineate rights to use ocean resources and which implies sovereignty.
Independent candidate Clarence Ronald Leung Kam-shing asked what probably some voters had in mind: “How can you convince China to give Hong Kong the right to the zone in order to be independent from the country’s energy supply?”
The question left Youngspiration’s Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang stuttering.
5. Rise of rural forces
The tension between different rural forces in the elections has come under the spotlight in the past two weeks. Raising the curtain was Ken Chow Wing-kan, a Liberal Party candidate and a long-time district councillor who has close ties to rural elites in Yuen Long.
Last week, when Chow tearfully announced he would stop electioneering due to alleged threats at an election forum, all eyes focused on Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, whose supporters, Chow said, had planned to “pursue” him and deter him from campaigning.
There is speculation that Chow’s dramatic move was designed to destabilise Ho, who had been predicted by polls to win a seat in New Territories West, a claim Chow has categorically denied.
Rival candidate Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said Ho’s rise was backed by the government. Just days before Ho announced his candidacy in July, the government named him a Justice of the Peace, a position that enables him to be an ex-officio member of the Heung Yee Kuk rural body.
He said by sending Ho to the kuk, the government would have more control over the body, which has 26 members on the election committee that picks the city’s leader and one in Legco.
It remains to be seen whether Chow’s case will hurt Ho.
However, the Chow saga has benefited Chu, a social activist who has helped villagers who lost their homes to development projects backed by the government and the kuk.