How Hong Kong’s pan-democrats failed to turn the tide of the leadership race
While critics question ‘lesser of two evils’ strategy, others say the election contributed to a civil awakening for the middle-aged
Five years ago, winding queues of would-be voters emerged across Hong Kong for the pan-democratic camp’s civil referendum – a mock ballot giving fellow citizens a say in the chief executive election.
More than 222,990 people participated in the March 23 event, with an overwhelming 54.6 per cent – or 121,661 voters – casting blank ballots in protest of what they called a “small-circle election”.
A similar civil referendum held this year, however, failed to attract the same public interest, with just 65,106 participating. M ore than 91 per cent of voters opted for pro-establishment candidate John Tsang Chun-wah.
With participants forced to disclose personal details via the Telegram messaging app, the poor turnout was blamed on privacy concerns. But, undoubtedly, the conspicuous absence of any promotion from mainstream pan-democrats also had an impact.
The pan-democratic bloc entered representatives into the 2007 and 2012 chief executive elections, with political reform central to its campaigns.
But this year, the camp adopted an entirely new, albeit contentious approach by endorsing the candidate it saw as the “lesser of two evils”: Tsang.
It was hoped the strategy would stop former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – a perceived hardliner and Beijing’s preferred candidate – from clinching victory. But it failed to pay off and Lam’s triumph on Sunday left many questioning whether the pan-democratic bloc was right to position itself as kingmaker in what was widely considered a Beijing-decreed contest.
“I think the pan-democrats are losers in the election,” Dr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said.
“It was unfortunate that many pro-democracy issues were not raised throughout the election as the camp did not have a spokesman in the race.”
This year, the camp hedged its bets by giving third contender Woo Kwok-hing 180 nominations to run for chief executive. But unlike previous pan-democrat candidates Alan Leong Kah-kit and Albert Ho Chun-yan, the retired judge did not have a solid record of advocating democracy.
One of the strongest critics of the pan-democrats’ approach was “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, who went as far as to raise his hand for the top job at the risk of forsaking his core principle of opposing the “small circle election”.
He did this to stop pan-democrats from endorsing a pro-establishment aspirant, but eventually had to drop out after failing to secure sufficient support via the poorly backed civil referendum.
“No opposition force fighting for democracy in a country would endorse a pro-establishment candidate because he or she is ‘better’,” Leung, who is from the League of Social Democrats, said.
He argued that Tsang, though popular, was neither a good option nor capable of leading the pan-democratic movement.
“The pan-democrats have been fooling themselves and were deceived by the mirage they created.”
But Albert Ho, who represented the camp in the 2012 election, stood by the pan-democrats’ decision to back Tsang, despite it failing to turn the tide against Lam.
“Isn’t the case of Tsang the best illustration of how problematic the ‘August 31’ blueprint actually was? Under that framework, even Tsang can’t enter the election with his overwhelming popularity,” the former chairman of the Democratic Party said.
He was referring to the ruling handed down by Beijing on political reform in 2014, which would allow two or three candidates with majority support from a 1,200-member committee to contest the poll by universal suffrage.
The pan-democrats blocked the proposal the following year in the Legislative Council.
Last month, Tsang reached the 150 nominations needed to secure candidacy for the chief executive election with just 35 from the pro-establishment camp and the remainder from the pan-democrats. It came amid claims that the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong had quietly canvassed votes for rival Lam.
“The ugly side of the rigged election system is never as clear, and whether the pan-democrats could be the kingmaker is no longer relevant,” Ho said.
“We are here to counter the manipulation of the election by the liaison office.”
He said there was no need for the pan-democrats to enter the election race again because their call for democracy was clearly heard during the 2014 Occupy movement. He also dismissed suggestions that supporting Tsang placed the camp in a difficult position down the road.
“If Tsang wins the race, we believe we can start a new relationship with the government and we will still criticise him if he fails in his role,” Ho said before the election.
Occupy Central co-founder Dr Chan Kin-man, also a sociologist at Chinese University, echoed Ho’ sentiments, adding that many Hongkongers were frustrated by Lam’s victory.
“While Occupy Central is the civil awakening of many young people, the election this time is another one for the middle-aged who support John Tsang,” he said. “More people now realise that the full implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ would not be possible without a fair election method.”
No chief executive candidates from the pan-democratic camp had ever achieved such a high popularity rating comparable to Tsang, Chan said, adding the defeat of former financial secretary had dealt an unprecedented blow to public morale.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law school and a strong advocate of the civil referendum, said he wished pan-democrats had stuck to their principles instead of focusing on “strategic concerns” and the eventual outcome.
“It is very hard for pan-democrats to beat Beijing or alter the results because of their limitations,” he said.
“But I do not want to criticise them as I would say it is a learning process.”
Political scientist Ma admitted the pan-democrats had defaulted in what he said was a difficult position.
“After all, it is very hard to advocate democracy in a small-circle election,” he said.