Hong Kong lone ranger candidates seek to tame the voters in Legislative Council elections
Independent candidates like Lau Siu-lai and Eddie Chu do not have party machines behind them but they know how to use social media to their advantage
Under the scorching sun of a July afternoon, Jeff Lo Hai-chi and two comrades were spending half an hour moving 20 flags, rolled-up banner stands and an amplifier from Mong Kok East MTR station to Ho King Commercial Centre in Mong Kok – when it could have taken just six minutes in a car.
“We struggled over whether to call a van, but eventually dropped the idea as our budget is really tight,” the City University master’s student said.
The baby-faced Lo can still remember how hard it used to be to canvass votes for Lau Siu-lai, the 40-year-old social science lecturer and an Occupy protester who is running in Sunday’s Legislative Council elections in Kowloon West constituency.
“Only 60 people took my leaflets in two hours. It was frustrating as people said they would not back newcomers,” Lo said.
But things have changed dramatically over the past two weeks since Lau made a name for herself in a series of election forums broadcast on TV and radio.
Thanks to the “equal-time rule” which requires broadcasters to offer all candidates the same amount of air time, the former nobody was given plenty of opportunity to hit out at her rivals.
The clip of Lau questioning pro-establishment candidate Priscilla Leung Mei-fun over labour rights issues and a universal pension scheme on a TV forum drew over 1.1 million views on Facebook in just one week.
Her popularity also soared from 1.8 per cent in early July to 7 per cent in the latest rolling poll, propelling her to fifth place in the constituency, which has six seats.
Her leaflets are now being snapped up like hot cakes and Lo finds he can distribute 500 within an hour.
Lau’s campaign was given a boost this week when former radio host and lawmaker Albert Cheng King-hon accompanied her in Cheung Sha Wan.
Lau and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, another independent running in New Territories West, are the two so-called lone ranger candidates trying to set a trend on Sunday by winning without the backing of a political party – after “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung broke the mould in 2004.
For that, the pair will have several factors to thank: the equal-time rule at election forums, the spending caps which limit a candidate’s campaigning expenses and the proportional representation system, which allows candidates to win even with a fairly low proportion of votes.
Amid the rise of localist sentiment and its rejection of the traditional pro-establishment and pan-democrat camps, Hong Kong is this year seeing a record 213 candidates from 55 lists fighting for 35 seats in the five geographical constituencies.
The crowded field, partly encouraged by the proportional representation system, has posed a huge headache for broadcasters. As a result, some election forums have been extended from hour-long sessions to three hours, with political scientist Dr Ma Ngok describing it as “torture” to monitor all of them.
“It is time to rethink whether the equal-time rule should stay,” said Ma. “It’s impossible to facilitate any meaningful debate with so many candidates involved.”
The veteran election watcher from Chinese University suggested that broadcasters should divide candidates into groups based on their popularity or political stance. Otherwise, he said, such forums would continue to turn people off.
But both Lau and Chu disagreed, arguing forums were about the only free opportunity for them to reach out to voters. Not everyone was on social media, they noted.
An environmentalist himself, Chu likened the elections to a money-wasting “war”.
The election watchdog has set out limits for election expenses in each constituency based on population in a bid to ensure no aspirant enjoys an edge because they have a sizeable war chest.
Candidates contesting in New Territories East and West, for instance, cannot spend more than HK$3.04 million per list.
Chu, whose poll popularity increased from 3 per cent in early August to 9 per cent now, placing him fourth in the constituency, said the election cap should never be increased in future as it would only widen the “wealth gap” between party-backed candidates and independents.
“It would only encourage candidates to spend more money on the election,” he said.
Planning to spend just HK$1 million on his campaign, Chu has not placed ads on public transport or billboards at tunnel entrances, as parties do. Instead, he recycled old banners, made full use of social media by regularly resorting to live feeds on Facebook and launched a campaign song on “land justice” – a cause he has embraced for years.
The biggest amount he has spent – HK$600,000 – was to print the election pamphlets which are delivered by Hong Kong Post free of charge to all 600,000 voters.
But Chu does not feel his team is inferior compared with other candidates.
“The emergence of social media and the internet has allowed us to engage audiences at a low cost,” he told the Post. “I feel like we are maintaining a very delicate balance with party-backed candidates ... as we could in fact beat them with an effective use of such platforms.”
He also points to his 100-strong team of devoted volunteers, comparing them to the part-time staff employed by his pro-establishment rivals.
“The paid staff [employed by other parties] might not go the extra mile to recruit more people to join the team, but my comrades will. My team is not a machine but a ‘lively organism’,” Chu said. “That is something our rivals do not have.”
Political scientist Ma Ngok said the splintering effect had placed small pro-democracy parties in an unfavourable position.
“Small parties, such as the Labour Party, do not now enjoy an edge over independent candidates as they do not have sufficient resources to promote their candidates under such fierce competition [within the camp],” he said.
The environment is also so polarised that many voters are looking for new faces who can inject new blood into the pro-democracy movement.
Ma said it was inevitable for the pro-democracy parties to go through a soul-searching process to consolidate with allies after the election as further splintering would damage their future electoral chances.
“In the past, it was thought it was easier for a small party to win a seat under the proportional representation system,” he said. “But that’s no longer the case.”
Pro-establishment parties are also not unaffected because they too could find their base shrinking if the middle ground or so-called fence-sitters opt for new faces.
The rise of lone ranger candidates could be sustained well after the elections if no consolidation took place, Ma warned.