The district council elections on Sunday marked another milestone in our city's democratic development. A record 1.2 million electors cast their votes, partly reflecting an increase in the number of registered voters. The turnout of 41.4 per cent was higher than in 2007, which is encouraging given the absence of any recent political controversy to fuel interest in the polls. The figures show that people in Hong Kong are increasingly embracing democracy and participating in elections, which is a sign of growing political maturity.
This will come as little consolation to the pro-democracy camp which suffered a big setback. The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong gained 21 seats, taking its total to 136. It now commands one-third of the seats across the 18 districts, becoming the most influential force at this level. The DAB's ally, the Federation of Trade Unions, also fared well, with more than 60 per cent of its candidates elected.
The figures provide clear evidence that the pro-Beijing camp's hard work in providing services in these constituencies is paying off. Strong district support and effective canvassing machinery have set them apart from the pan-democratic camp in the district-based contests where broader political issues are generally given less importance. The defeat for the pan-democrats, the worst since the handover, should prompt some serious soul-searching within that camp.
The Democratic Party now holds only 47 seats. Prominent figures, such as the Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah and Tanya Chan were defeated by lesser known candidates, raising the possibility that the party's stance on sensitive issues such as permanent residency for foreign domestic helpers cost them votes. Radical groups like the League of Social Democrats failed to win a seat, while the breakaway faction People Power secured just one.
Although the strategy of targeting moderate democrat allies does not seem to have had a major impact, the camp could have secured more seats without the damaging infighting, which did not play well with voters. The results also suggest a backlash against political stunts and confrontational protests.
In the short term, the defeat will derail the pan-democrats' planned electoral line-up for the extra five Legislative Council seats reserved for district councillors next year. But more importantly, it underlines the need to revamp their strategy. With the government yet to be democratically elected, there is a need for the camp to play an effective check and balance role and to contribute to public debate. To do that, they need to speak with one voice - and to present coherent and constructive policy platforms tackling the challenges our city faces.