Hong Kong’s pan-democrats might find their missing by-election voters among indifferent young people
John Chan says behind the low voter turnout that cost the pan-democrats dearly in Sunday’s Legislative Council by-election are young people who were too indifferent to the poll to vote
Sunday’s by-election was a setback for Hong Kong pan-democrats’ bid to regain all four Legislative Council seats vacated by disqualified lawmakers. Pan-democrat candidates won back only two of the three geographical constituency seats. The greatest surprise was the failure of Edward Yiu Chung-yim’s bid to win the Kowloon West seat, which has traditionally been a pan-democrat stronghold.
It is generally accepted that the pan-democrats can gain up to 60 per cent of the vote in the geographical constituencies in any election. Thus pan-democrats blamed the low voter turnout for their failed bid in Kowloon West and their narrow wins on Hong Kong Island and New Territories East.
In Sunday’s by-election, the three geographical constituencies had an overall turnout rate of 43.13 per cent, compared to a turnout of 58.28 per cent in the 2016 general election – a drop of 15 percentage points.
While pan-democrats have blamed the low turnout for their poor showing, they should not overlook one reason behind the decline – the pan-democratic camp is not as united as it appeared to be.
So where are these “missing” voters?
Take Kowloon West, for example. In the 2016 general election, seven key pan-democratic political groups – League of Social Democrats, Civic Party, Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, Proletariat Political Institute, Democratic Party, Democracy Groundwork (Lau Siu-lai) and Youngspiration – garnered 159,599 votes, or 57.23 per cent of the 278,871 votes cast in the constituency. Yet in Sunday’s by-election, only 105,056 pan-democratic supporters voted for Edward Yiu. More than one-third of the voters who voted for pan-democratic candidates in that constituency in 2016 did not support Yiu in this by-election. Why?
Similarly, on Hong Kong Island, eight key pan-democratic players – Path of Democracy, People Power, Labour Party, Civic Passion, Demosisto, Democratic Party, Civic Party and the independent candidate Paul Zimmerman – garnered 190,506 votes of the total 376,577 votes cast on the island in 2016, representing 50.5 per cent of its total turnout. Yet in the by-election, the winner Au Nok-hin received only 137,181 votes. Where were the other 53,325 voters who voted for pan-democratic candidates?
In comparison, the low turnout in Sunday’s by-election seems to have had little adverse effect on the pro-establishment camp. In Kowloon West, in 2016, the pro-establishment camp garnered 102,286 votes, while in the by-election, Vincent Cheng Wing-shun of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong got 107,479 votes, higher than the pro-establishment’s vote share in 2016.
On Hong Kong Island, the three major pro-establishment groups, DAB, New People’s Party and Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, altogether won 147,837 votes in 2016. In the by-election, Judy Chan Ka-pui of the New People’s Party, who lost to Au, gained 127,643 votes, despite the low turnout.
The loss of support is significant. The 53,325 missing pan-democratic supporters in the Hong Kong Island by-election represented over 14 per cent of the turnout there in 2016, while the 54,543 missing pan-democrats in Kowloon West accounted for over 19 per cent of its 2016 turnout. Some people believe that the young pro-independence, pro-self-determination groups did not actively support the pan-democrat candidates in the by-election.
Before the elections, Dr Chung Kim-wah, a political scholar at Polytechnic University, had observed that many university students were largely indifferent towards the poll. Sunday’s turnout proved his observation to be accurate.
The reason for young people’s indifference is worth exploring. On the face of it, it indicates traditional pan-democrat groups’ failure to connect with the young activists and their supporters, in an election that did not include the young activists.
In New Territories East, the pan-democratic stronghold, the most eye-catching result was the dramatic rise of Christine Fong Kwok-shan. In 2016, she won 34,544 votes, this time she had double that number, with 64,905 votes. The erstwhile Liberal Party district councillor has been able to absorb votes from supporters of her former party. Some suggested that if Fong had not joined the race, Gary Fan Kwok-wai, with 183,762 of the total votes cast, or a mere 44.56 per cent, might not have been able to secure his seat.
Fong’s next move in the upcoming by-election to fill the seat left vacant by “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung in New Territories East will be closely watched by the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camp alike. Fong herself may well have her eyes on the 2020 general election. In 2016, she needed only 1,100 more votes to beat Leung Kwok-hung to a seat.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong