There's no easy route to political success

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am

The stunning defeat of the pan-democratic camp in the district council elections shows at least two things. One, voters reward those who work hard to serve them. Two, there is little future for single-issue parties.

It is said that all politics is local and this is particularly true of district council elections, where the issues have little to do with ideology. In these elections, a candidate seen to be serving the constituents by getting a minibus route for the district is likely to win votes, regardless of his party affiliation.

Many who hanker for office say they want to serve the people. Actually, it is possible to serve the people even when not in office, as some of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong's candidates have shown.

The party's vice-chairman, Ip Kwok-him, for example, lost his seat four years ago. But by all accounts, even though out of office, he did not stop working for his constituents in the Kwun Lung district. As a result, he was able to recapture his seat this time. Losers in this year's election would do well to keep this in mind.

The DAB was routed in 2003, managing to win only 62 seats while the pro-democracy camp won about 140. That outcome reflected the electorate's deep disaffection with the government. However, the democrats did not make use of this windfall to consolidate their position. Instead, they were lax in district work and allowed themselves to lose public support. As a result, the DAB managed to more than double its seats this year, to 115, while the democratic camp saw its elected numbers drop to 108.

But sometimes hard work alone is not enough. The Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, a pro-democracy party with a strong record of district work, lost eight of its 25 seats this time around, leading to the resignation of its party leader, Frederick Fung Kin-kee. When Mr Fung announced he was quitting, the party disclosed that it had been blindsided by old supporters who had switched sides and by new migrants who had voted for the DAB and to whom the association's previous record of service was irrelevant.

This shows that, to be a successful politician, there is never time to rest on one's laurels. There are always new issues to tackle, new constituents to serve. Given the fact that there are over half a million more names on the electoral rolls this year than in 2003, all the parties should have been conscious of this need.

Party politics in Hong Kong is still relatively new. The Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the DAB all trace their origins to the early 1990s. However, of these parties, only the DAB has seriously approached the task of building up its membership and its outreach to the community. Today, while other parties only have a few hundred members, the DAB has well over 10,000. Moreover, it has a network in virtually all housing estates - an achievement that no other party has even tried to emulate. Its success this year was hard-earned.

The democrats like to cite the undeniable fact that the majority of Hongkongers want universal suffrage at an early date, with large numbers of protesters repeatedly calling for full democracy over the years.

However, the demonstrations often included those who were unhappy about other issues, such as unemployment, negative equity, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Article 23 legislation, not just universal suffrage.

Now that the economy is doing well, massive protests are hard to imagine. Democracy, after all, is only a means to an end; if the government is seen to be doing a good job, then fewer people will demonstrate for democracy. Universal suffrage, of course, remains an important issue, but it is not sufficient to win elections. Democrats must offer more than what are seen as empty slogans when courting voters.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.