Hong Kong pan-democrats’ by-election losses show the politics of anger is losing its lustre
Regina Ip says the pan-democrat camp’s poor showing at last Sunday’s by-election indicates that voters are more concerned with livelihood issues than political fantasies
In Hong Kong, a city where election to the highest political office is tightly controlled by a predominantly pro-government Election Committee, elections to the legislature come closest to popular contests capable of redrawing the political landscape and shifting the balance of power.
The importance of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong cannot be overemphasised. Despite complaints from democratic supporters that Legco has only veto power, not the power to govern as in the British parliamentary system, its power to veto and to filibuster has in recent years caused the government’s legislative and public works programmes much delay and exacted a high political price from the government on more than one occasion.
The outcomes of the Legco by-elections last Sunday could mark the threshold of a change in the distribution of power in Legco that would spell the end of pan-democratic dominance. To the disappointment of the pan-democrats, who had hoped to win all four seats up for grabs (one in the Architecture, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency, the others in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, and New Territories East), the camp managed to capture only two seats: Hong Kong Island and New Territories East.
In Kowloon West, Vincent Cheng Wing-shun from the dyed-in-the-wool, pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, scored a historic first by representing the pro-establishment camp in winning in a single-seat, single-constituency election. Not only did the pan-democrats fail to win in Kowloon West, they suffered a sharp fall in votes in all three geographical constituencies. Collectively, the pan-democrats lost 252,035 votes, or a decline of about 37 per cent, compared to their vote count in the 2016 Legco election.
The unexpected cratering of support could be due to a combination of reasons. In Kowloon West, the poor campaign tactics of the pan-democratic challenger Edward Yiu Chung-yim, who parachuted into the constituency after he won the pan-democrats’ “primary”, versus the much deeper roots and more appealing image of Cheng, were no doubt key factors.
But Yiu’s loss, coupled with the poor showings of the other pan-democrat candidates, drive home the reality that pan-democrat candidates cannot expect to continue to win by just flying a pro-democracy banner. Nor can they bank on winning by slamming the government – on this occasion, the government’s disqualification of legislators who failed to take their oaths properly.
The politics of anger worked well in 2004, when Hong Kong was still smarting from the national security legislation fiasco, and in 2012, when parents felt threatened by the implementation of national education. But not this time. The muted public reaction to the disqualification suggests greater general acceptance of the constitutional order emphasised by the central authorities.
Another reason behind the subsidence of anger is the change at the top. After Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor replaced Leung Chun-ying as chief executive, a major irritant in the relationship between the government and the people was removed. Lam kept a low profile and tried her best to steer clear of political controversies, focusing on disaster relief and dishing out funds to the pan-democrats and the needy. The low voter turnout rate of 43 per cent last Sunday, compared to 60 per cent in the 2016 general election, shows that the government’s tactics of depoliticisation might have worked.
Another major reason for the pan-democrats’ setback is the “Balkanisation” of their camp. In the wake of the localist movement and Occupy Central, traditional democratic parties have lost ground to new nativist, pro-independence or self-rule groups led by young radicals. After the government started taking firm prosecution action against those involved in violent protests and disqualified those with pro-independence leanings, these groups have been gravely battered and gone into hibernation.
The inability of Gary Fan Kwok-wai to garner support from across the pan-democratic camp is a decisive factor behind the collapse of his support base in New Territories East.
Hong Kong’s pan-democrats might find their missing by-election voters among indifferent young people
This does not mean, however, that the pro-establishment camp can bet on making continuous inroads into pan-democrat territory in future elections. The dynamics of every election are different – the general political atmosphere, campaign tactics and performance of individual candidates all play a part.
As someone who has campaigned on the street in support of Judy Chan Ka-pui on Hong Kong Island in the past 60-odd days, one message is clear – the issues of uppermost concern to the people are housing, retirement protection, medical services and health care, education, and more recently, the uneven distribution of the benefits of economic growth in the budget.
Not a single day passed by without some good citizen griping about the lack of affordable, decent housing. Any political leader, whether elected or appointed, who fails to address these issues of real concern to the people, but keeps peddling political fantasies or fake ideologies, are bound to wake up one day to a rude rebuke by the people.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party