No matter how the Civic Party and League of Social Democrats - the instigators of the so-called referendum - express it, there is no denying that the outcome of the Legislative Council by-elections failed to match expectations.
In retrospect, the central government adopted a winning strategy by branding the by-elections unconstitutional and illegal from the outset. At first the pro-establishment forces were excited about running, hoping to snatch seats from the pan-democrats. They made a U-turn only after Beijing gave a clear signal that the entire process should be boycotted. Because of the absence of opponents on the election battleground, the so-called referendum drew an unenthusiastic response from the public.
Having a voter turnout far below the 50 per cent threshold required in order to call the 'referendum' a success came as no surprise at all. But the very low, 17.1 per cent, turnout rate must have been caused by the pan-democrats' failure to present a united front in the run-up to the polls. The fatal problem was that the Democratic Party, which represents mainstream democrats, openly refused to take part.
On the eve of the by-elections, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said that, after careful consideration, he and all members of his political team would boycott the event because it was unnecessary and a waste of public money. Some criticised that as awkwardly sneaky. But to say that it put pressure on civil servants trying to decide whether to vote - and that it dampened voter turnout - was not only non-factual but also exaggerated Tsang's influence.
He is the product of a small-circle election. Having been appointed by Beijing, politically he cannot refuse to follow central government policy. But he also has to implement policies laid down by the law and follow through with them. In this case, the government was duty-bound to hold the by-elections - and obligated to stay away from them. I don't expect many to sympathise with the administration, but they should understand that the government is caught between a rock and a hard place.
It's unrealistic to say that Tsang's boycott influenced the outcome. If he really had the power to sway public opinion, he would have won people over long ago to support his constitutional reform proposal.
It's well known that, in terms of geographical elections, the percentage of votes for democrats and pro-government parties hovers around a ratio of 6 to 4, with the former always having a slight advantage. The voter turnout rate in Legco polls averages around 50 per cent. Pan-democrats can normally draw 60 per cent of the vote, so it shouldn't have been difficult to achieve at least 30 per cent turnout in the by-elections - 1 million ballots - had they been united. Fewer than 600,000 took part, which may mean that their other supporters disapproved of the 'referendum'.
The most influential voice against the by-elections was veteran pan-democratic leader Szeto Wah. If his fellow pan-democrats really want to blame someone for their poor performance, they should blame him instead of Tsang - whose boycott might even have prompted some to come out to vote.
Some even blamed the electoral arrangements for dragging down the voter turnout. That was total nonsense, because we have some of the best and fairest electoral practices in the region.
Under a democratic system, everyone has a choice of whether or not to vote. Instead of blaming someone, the pan-democrats should reflect on the results and their implications for preparing better for the future. The by-elections were just the beginning of a long, arduous new democratic movement.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. email@example.com