There's no ignoring Hong Kong voters' support for youthful underdogs in district council elections
Regina Ip says the electoral success of a handful of youthful underdogs in the district council polls, at the expense of some veteran politicos, is surely a sign of things to come
Elections are closely watched as barometers of the public mood, and quite rightly so. In democratic countries, elections determine whether a government stays in power. In semi-democratic Hong Kong, although elections cannot throw out a government, the outcomes, particularly at Legislative Council level, determine the size of the pro-government camp in the legislature and hence the chances of the government's agenda being successfully implemented during its tenure.
District council elections are prologues to the Legco elections. Not only do they provide telltale signs of what the people think of the state of our society and governance, the distribution of seats won by the pro-establishment and the pan-democratic camps directly affect the balance of power in the legislature.
In 2003, after Hong Kong suffered the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, a failed attempt to implement national security legislation and a steep fall in property values, the pro-establishment camp suffered a bruising defeat in the district council elections. The leading, pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, lost two-thirds of its seats.
This year, as Hong Kong emerged from a contentious debate on the chief executive election and 79 days of Occupy Central, pundits were closely watching whether history would repeat itself, resulting in heavy losses for the pro-establishment camp.
Prior to the elections, pollsters forecast a high voter turnout. Conventional wisdom in Hong Kong is that a high turnout is unfavourable to the pro-establishment camp.
The moment of truth came in the small hours of November 23. The turnout of 47 per cent was a record high. In the 10 most hotly contested constituencies, turnout ranged from 59.87 per cent to 64.67 per cent. In many constituencies, candidates won by a narrow margin, a mark of the intense polarisation in our society.
Overall, both camps suffered significant losses and gains, with the distribution of seats remaining roughly the same.
While a high voter turnout is not necessarily a negative for the pro-establishment camp, history has repeated itself in other ways. In constituencies which are long-standing strongholds of the pan-democrats, especially those on Hong Kong Island, people voted along ideological lines, even though the candidate had only recently surfaced or had done little district work.
READ MORE: Hong Kong district council elections: the top 4 surprises and what they mean to the future of politics in the city
Judging from the turnout and the inclination of voters, particularly those in middle-class constituencies, to vote along political lines, it is highly likely that turnout in next year's Legco election will break records, and the well-established 60-40 split in seats between the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camp will remain unchanged for now.
Another closely watched outcome was whether, after Occupy Central, the "blue" or "yellow" camp would gain the upper hand.
The elections last Sunday took place in an outwardly tranquil atmosphere, with the pan-democratic camp failing to whip up passions, whether from the lead-in-water scandal or the campaign to abolish the much detested Territory-wide System Assessment (a series of tests that track the progress of primary school students). The feverish democratic debate was a non-event in the districts.
Occupy Central was the elephant in the room. Few candidates dared run their campaign on this controversial subject, and savvy voters left little hint of how Occupy would affect their votes. It was almost impossible to fathom their choices until the votes had been counted.
The biggest story broke after the votes had been tallied. The highest success rate was achieved by the NeoDemocrats, who were led by legislator Gary Fan Kwok-wai, in New Territories East. They won 15 out of the 16 seats they contested. Fan ran on a platform of "Hong Kong people first" (without defining what he means by "Hong Kong people") and Hong Kong nativism. Steering clear of discrimination against new immigrants, the NeoDemocrats presented younger and more hard-working choices for their voters.
Another surprise is the rise of the so-called "umbrella soldiers", who are not all young, and emerged not long before the elections. Running under the banner of representing the underprivileged and fighting vested interests, eight of them defeated prominent legislators or rivals of elite backgrounds. A few admitted to having been involved in Occupy or physical conflict in Legco.
The dislodging of well-established district councillors with much higher name recognition applied across the board to both camps.
The rise of the "umbrella soldiers" is a continuation of the Occupy saga. They represent the same forces which paralysed Hong Kong for 79 days during Occupy - anger at the establishment for the widening wealth gap, stalling upward mobility, and, above all, the diminution of Hong Kong versus the steady rise of mainland China.
The voters gave these underprivileged candidates and young lions places at the table. Sympathy for the disadvantaged, support for the young and a quest for change are surely hints of the shape of things to come.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party