Hong Kong by-elections show old ideas about local campaigning no longer hold true
Alice Wu says the real ramifications of last week’s by-election may not be known for some time, but DAB’s Vincent Cheng’s voter mobilisation and pan-democrat infighting are already clear takeaways
The Legislative Council by-election a little over a week ago wasn’t supposed to be that big of a story. The invalidation of Agnes Chow Ting’s Hong Kong Island candidacy and discovery of illegal structures at candidate Paul Zimmerman’s Sai Kung home got more attention than the subsequent campaigns.
Things were expected to be more or less the same. Pan-democrats were expected to win all geographical constituency seats for the by-election, as they have won every single Legco by-election for a geographical seat since the establishment of the Hong Kong special administrative region in 1997. The long-held “golden ratio” of pan-democratic candidates receiving 60 per cent of votes while pro-establishment candidates get 40 per cent guarantees pan-democrats win by-elections in the geographical constituencies, done with the first-past-the-post voting method.
So when political star, disqualified legislator Edward Yiu Chung-yim lost to Vincent Cheng Wing-shun of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong in Kowloon West, it rocked this city’s political world.
Cheng arguably entered the race with the worse odds, as Kowloon West has historically been a pan-democrat stronghold, with decades of grass-roots support due to the work of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (ADPL). In the 2016 Legislative Council elections, West Kowloon pro-establishment candidates received 36 per cent of the votes, faring even worse than the supposed golden ratio. And running against Yiu – the “face” of the pan-democrats’ referendum on the government’s disqualification of Legco members – Cheng had an even slimmer chance.
The pan-democrats were quick to apologise and take the blame for the stunning loss. But behind their “united front”, Yiu was blamed for his arrogance, not believing in traditional campaign work like going from door to door for support, while the ADPL was blamed for not mobilising supporters.
The irony of all ironies, of course, is that the whole idea of the primary was to eliminate infighting and rivalry, which the pan-democratic camp has been really good at. So perhaps the loss wasn’t so stunning after all.
Solidarity requires much more challenging work like compromise, finding common ground and mutual respect. The camp has proven that they’ve not only been antagonistic in Legco against their rivals – and at every level against the government – they’ve been combative with their allies. This sort of splintering will cost them dearly if they don’t keep up with the changing electorate.
Speaking of the changing electorate, is it true that Cheng’s win means the public has changed so much that it now overwhelmingly supports disqualification of candidates, as some pro-establishment politicians have been quick to suggest? Cheng was the exception, not the rule. It may be that the votes pro-establishment candidates received in all three geographical constituencies were encouraging for the camp, and the electorate may be starting to defy the golden ratio, but it would be wise to keep a clear head.
Cheng did not win with luck, nor with traditional pro-establishment voter mobilisation. Cheng didn’t only beat Yiu, he beat his own camp: in 2016, the pro-establishment bloc received 102,286 votes. Cheng received more actual votes with a lower voter turnout. Surely, this gives a clue about voter preference.
The electorate is changing and we’re finding out the how and why. It is time for all pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps to stop relying on old assumptions and old tricks. It is time to stop emoting and start thinking. As the late Stephen Hawking said: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA