Occupy Central

How will Hong Kong pro-democracy protests affect district elections?

Pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps agree on one thing: nobody is sure what Occupy means for November's district council elections

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 12:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 6:47pm

The Occupy Central protests sparked a fierce tussle between the two sides of the political divide. Pan-democrats hailed a "civic awakening" while their pro-establishment rivals mobilised supporters to condemn the 79-day street blockade as an affront to the rule of law.

Yet more than a month after the sit-ins ended, both camps are reluctant to say whether the civil disobedience campaign will help or hinder them in the first big electoral test of the post-Occupy era - November's district council elections. In a rare note of agreement, both camps say events to come will have a bigger effect on voters, while the extent to which a political awakening among the city's youth will lead them to turn out to vote remains unclear.

The pro-establishment camp dominates all 18 district councils, holding about half of the 412 directly elected seats. More than 80 are in the hands of pan-democrats. Independents hold the rest, while the councils also contain 95 ex officio or appointed members. While councils have little formal power, they will play a key role in next year's Legislative Council election, at which six seats go to district councillors including five so-called super seats, elected in a citywide ballot of three million voters.

On the pan-democratic side, Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood chairman Bruce Liu Sing-lee fears a "landslide" loss for the camp.

"The umbrella movement was a double-edged sword: residents support its fight for democracy, but it also blocked road traffic [in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok]," Liu said. "The district councils deal with lots of livelihood issues, which were not helped by the movement."

However, Democratic Party lawmaker and Wong Tai Sin district councillor Wu Chi-wai says it is too early to call.

"Political factors usually kick in late into the run-up, so we must do the basics first," Wu said, referring to grass-roots work by councillors, helped by the party's 50 or so community officers.

Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist responsible for coordination among pan-democratic parties, shared Wu's view. While pan-democrats were "not optimistic" about the vote, that was mainly because of their financial disadvantage.

And despite that shortcoming, Cheng believes two factors could work in favour of the pan-democrats. Firstly, the 27 pan-democratic lawmakers are likely to vote down the government's political reform package. Secondly, young people, including first-time voters, are showing enthusiasm for the polls.

Pan-democrats have vowed to deny the government the two-thirds majority it needs if it insists on a model for the 2017 chief executive poll based on Beijing's framework, under which voters would choose from two or three candidates picked by a 1,200-strong committee.

"Half a million took to the streets on July 1, 2003, and the pan-democrats won a landside victory in the district council poll four months later, could that happen again this year?" Cheng said, referring to mass protests against an ill-fated national security bill that year.

He said pan-democrats would continue to encourage young people to register and vote in the district council poll.

And the youth vote is also on the minds of pro-establishment groups, who traditionally rely on an older support base. Their fears were stoked by the strong role youth groups such as the Federation of Students and Scholarism played during Occupy.

Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said: "Some people are saying that even if Occupy Central worked in favour of [our] camp … the favourable [sentiment] is fading.

"But when more young people are becoming voters, we don't know how they will vote," said Cheung, whose party is by far the biggest in the districts.

New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee cited government's figures which showed that more than half of about 77,000 new voters who registered last year were aged between 18 and 20.

"We will have to look at the new figures this summer … and consider the demographics of each constituency," she said.

But her vice-chairman, Sha Tin district councillor Pun Kwok-shan, said he would remind potential candidates to put the groundwork in, as it was their work not their stance on Occupy that tended to win local elections.

"Voters might be against those illegal acts, but it doesn't mean that they will vote for you … [just] because you are pro-establishment," Pun said.