Legislative Council of Hong Kong

Lee Cheuk-yan’s by-election defeat is a wake-up call for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp

  • Albert Cheung says Hong Kong’s pro-democrats need to come back down to earth, and the grass roots, if they are to have any hope of keeping their seats in the upcoming elections and regaining their veto power
PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 6:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 9:41am

Pro-democracy candidate Lee Cheuk-yan lost the Kowloon West legislative by-election and the opposition failed to regain the veto power in the Legislative Council (Legco). His main rival, the pro-establishment Chan Hoi-yan, got 106,457 votes, beating Lee’s 93,047 votes by more than 13,000.

The second runner-up was spoiler candidate Frederick Fung Kin-kee, with 12,509 votes. Some critics suggest Lee never stood a chance and would have lost even if pro-democrat Fung had not joined the race. However, considering the numbers, if Fung had stayed out of the contest and canvassed for the pan-democracy camp, it could have won.

Still, there are plenty of reasons for the defeat. This is the second time in eight months the pan-democracy camp has lost a by-election. The days of the so-called 6:4 golden ratio – when the pro-democrats always captured 60 per cent of the votes, versus the pro-establishment parties’ 40 per cent – are basically over. If the pro-democrats persist with their outdated visions and do not face reality, they are likely to suffer an even more brutal defeat in the upcoming District Council and Legco elections.

The pan-democracy camp rose from the ashes of the June 4 incident in 1989. In the following 20 years, pan-democrats ran in single-seat elections on a single platform – anti-communism.

But in the 2012 Legislative Council election, the magic of the golden ratio started to fade. Localism was rising and the pan-democracy camp took fewer than 60 per cent of the votes, even though it still had more support than the pro-establishment parties. But by then, the public was voting for the pro-democrats – some of whom were underperforming or not performing at all – simply because they wanted to retain the camp’s critical veto power in the legislature.

It is not that the pro-democrats have not re-evaluated their strategy after Edward Yiu Chung-yim’s defeat in the March by-election. But they have failed to refine their vision and disappointed many voters. Between the last by-election and this, the pro-establishment camp has not actually gained more support; clearly, the pan-democracy camp has lost again because its disappointed supporters have abandoned it.

Pan-democrats and localists urged to work together after by-election loss

Frankly, Lee Cheuk-yan was not the best candidate for the by-election. After Lau Siu-lai was disqualified, the pan-democrats should have held a primary election to choose a legitimate new candidate. Instead, Lee was appointed. This gave Fung a chance to make a mountain out of a molehill: to say he was running in the by-election and splitting the pan-democracy vote in the name of democracy.

Also, the pan-democracy camp’s campaign must have been put together in an ivory tower. It brought out its big guns to generate voter excitement – so-called famous politicians whom millennials have probably never heard of.

To turn things around, the pro-democrats have to expand their support base. Besides winning over the younger generation, they have to retain their existing base. Lee’s team overlooked the fact that a lot of people had been feeling helpless and frustrated in recent years, after the “Umbrella Movement” and disqualification of legislators – especially when voters were aware that the foolish acts of two elected localists had triggered the by-elections.

Grass-roots voters care the most about tangible, instant benefits

Kowloon West consists of many old districts, where grass-roots voters care the most about tangible, instant benefits. The pro-democrats have been focusing on political issues and neglecting livelihood concerns. The middle class has never approved of Lee because of his pro-labour background; but in the end, he not only failed to win over young voters but also lost grass-roots support.

Lau Siu-lai had won a seat in 2016 on the platform of universal retirement protection. She won voters’ hearts because she cared about what they cared about. However, Lee did not address such issues. This may have been why voters chose someone else.

What’s done is done. Looking ahead, if the pro-democrats do not prioritise the general public’s concerns, if they continue to focus on political struggles but fail to address the community’s needs, they are doomed to fail in the upcoming elections. How are they going to regain their veto power, if they can’t even keep their existing seats?

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]