Will Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp learn the right lessons from shocking by-election setback?
They will need to double down on efforts to engage the young and public housing estate residents and not just rely on their traditional base of better-educated, middle-class voters, analysts say
Kowloon West candidate Edward Yiu Chung-yim’s stunning loss in Sunday’s by-election might be blamed on local factors but many in the pro-democracy camp accept it as a wake-up call for them.
Until now, the bloc had never lost a Legislative Council by-election as they tended to bag roughly 55 to 60 per cent of votes in direct elections.
But that advantage evaporated for Yiu when his rival Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress for Hong Kong, received 49.9 per cent of votes, compared to Yiu’s 48.4 per cent.
With only 44 per cent of voters going to the polls in the constituency this time – compared to 58.1 per cent in the 2016 general election – Yiu recorded 105,060 votes, 54,539 fewer than what the pro-democracy camp got two years ago.
Cheng, a district councillor for Sham Shui Po in the constituency since 2007, got 5,193 more votes than the pro-establishment candidate two years ago.
Four seats – in three geographical constituencies and one functional constituency – were in play on Sunday, and the prevailing view was that the pro-democracy camp would sweep at least all the geographical seats, albeit in a tight race.
But while the camp’s Au Nok-hin and Gary Fan Kwok-wai won the race in Hong Kong Island and New Territories East, their vote shares dropped to 50.7 per cent and 44.6 per cent.
The pro-establishment camp’s Tony Tse Wai-chuen took the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape seat but Yiu’s loss hit the hardest.
During the 2016 general election, pro-democracy candidates won four of six seats in Kowloon West.
A disappointed Yiu on Monday attributed his unexpected defeat to “lack of experience” in direct elections and “inappropriate arrangement” of campaign activities.
The surveyor had previously represented the architectural functional constituency but was among six mostly localist lawmakers disqualified for their oath taking antics after they were elected to Legco in 2016. Two of the lawmakers are appealing the court decision, so the fate of their seats will be decided at a later date.
The pro-democracy bloc’s wobbly showing came on the back of Beijing taking a tougher line on the city and its activists.
After the disqualifications, a result of the National People’s Congress standing committee interpreting Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, it imposed a national anthem law last year, raising the spectre of prison terms for disrespecting the song or national flag.
The camp had thus framed the polls as a de facto referendum on the disqualifications and other tightening controls, an idea strengthened in December when officials barred young activist Agnes Chow Ting from standing in Hong Kong Island.
But these issues did not play as big a role in the outcome as had been expected, with Polytechnic University political scholar Dr Chung Kim-wah urging pan-democrats to learn a lesson, that playing the “persecution card” might not always work in their favour.
“People thought that the disqualification saga would bring sympathy votes [to Yiu], but it did not happen,” he said.
Choices of the rich, poor and middle-class: How Hong Kong Island residents voted in Sunday’s by-election
An analysis of Yiu’s results showed he did badly in public housing estates but beat his rival in middle-class areas.
Political scientist Dr Ma Ngok, of Chinese University attributed this to Yiu’s unconventional campaign, which included canvassing votes with a team of cyclists.
“You may get elected by appealing to 10 per cent of voters with the ‘cycling campaign’ in a general election where a proportional representation method is adopted, but 10 per cent is just not enough to win in a by-election,” he said.
He said the camp’s defeat this time could imply another tough battle was in store when the next by-election rolled around.
Another observer, Ivan Choy Chi-keung, also of Chinese University, said Yiu’s team had focused too much on their online campaign and ditched the practice of more traditional pan-dems to go door-to-door in public housing estates.
Indeed, one of them, Jay Li Ting-fung, said residents in new public housing estates tended to have more complicated backgrounds or were recent migrants to the city.
Li unsuccessfully contested a District Council election three years ago, which includes a new public housing estate that Yiu did particularly badly in.
“They tend to care more about their own problems and might not be very aware of the core values that the pan-democrats are fighting for,” said Li, adding the tremendous resources that pro-establishment candidates had to serve those estates also crowded out the pan-dems.
He argued that in the wake of Yiu’s defeat, the camp should explore how to better bring their ideals and messages to the low-income groups.
“You cannot rely solely on a specific class to beat the pro-establishment bloc [in elections],” Li said.
Others also had tips for how the pro-democracy camp could do better next time.
Chung said the camp should try to do more surveys ahead of elections in future to understand the climate and identify what citizens cared about the most. The city’s young, were an obvious target, he said.
“We knew young people were largely indifferent towards the election back in the Chinese New Year and they should have come up with some new strategies,” he said, adding they could team up more frequently with the youth-led party Demosisto.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai, also a Wong Tai Sin district councillor, agreed.
“Yiu’s case has reminded the camp to be more vigilant. We should try our best to explore how to bring our message to the residents across the spectrum,” he said.
“I do not believe there is any constituency that we cannot conquer … it depends on how much effort we put in and how determined we are.”
Wu hoped the camp could better prepare for the District Council elections next year, as he believed it would set a better foundation for the Legco polls in 2020.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei