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Legislative Council by-election 2018

Voter fatigue threatens to dampen turnout once again for West Kowloon by-election

  • Only 44.3 per cent of the electorate cast votes at the last by-election in March and analysts think it could be even worse this time
  • Recent controversies said to be too distant to sway voters
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 8:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 8:36am

As 490,000 voters in Hong Kong cast their ballots on Sunday in the legislature’s by-election, the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing blocs face a neck-and-neck battle that puts the two camps’ abilities to mobilise voters to the test.

Hong Kong’s politicians have been debating issues ranging from the government’s controversial decision to prevent British journalist Victor Mallet from entering the city, to a US congressional report recommending a review of trade policy on Hong Kong, yet analysts believe that voters are still suffering from fatigue since the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014, and those issues are unlikely to sway voters from one camp to the other.

After the Legislative Council election in 2016, a total of six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted for improper oath-taking. By-elections were held in March this year to fill four of the seats, as two legislators – Leung Kwok-hung and Lau Siu-lai – decided to appeal.

Lau dropped her appeal in May, triggering this by-election. The activist had also sought a comeback to Legco, but her candidacy was invalidated over her earlier call for the city’s self-determination.

Labour Party stalwart Lee Cheuk-yan, 61, was endorsed by the pan-democratic camp as Lau’s replacement, and analysts believe that the former legislator, together with pro-establishment candidate Chan Hoi-yan, 41, will come out on top, with the latter having a better chance of winning a seat in the Legco.

Speaking to the Post on Wednesday, Lee said the pan-democrats had showed unity – something critics said was lacking in the camp’s previous bid in the March by-election.

“The whole spectrum is present, from Martin Lee Chu-ming to Joshua Wong Chi-fung, spanning the generations,” he said.

Lee’s platform focuses on four themes: fighting for democracy, better living, a stronger civil society and resisting the “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.

Should Lee win the election, the pan-democrats would regain their power of veto in Legco.

There are 70 seats in the legislature, half of which represent geographical constituencies. The other half represent professional sectors in Hong Kong.

Under Legco’s split voting rule, a motion put forward by a lawmaker can only be approved with majority support from each of the two groups.

Before the oath-taking saga, the pro-democracy camp dominated the geographical constituencies, while the pro-Beijing camp controlled the functional group. The two camps were therefore able to veto each other’s motions.

The pan-democrats had hoped to regain that veto power in the March elections, but their champion Edward Yiu Chung-yim only managed to get 48.8 per cent of the votes in Kowloon West, and narrowly lost to his pro-Beijing rival Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, who garnered 49.9 per cent.

That by-election only drew 216,895 Kowloon West voters to polling stations – or 44.3 per cent of those registered in the constituency.

The biggest problem is that people have lost faith in elections … the credibility of the political system has been damaged
Chung Kim-wah, Polytechnic University

Pundits said the low turnout was a key reason for Yiu’s shock defeat, and this time it could be worse.

Political scientist Chung Kim-wah, of Polytechnic University, said the recent controversies facing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor were too distant to sway voters.

“The issues do not have a big impact on young voters,” he said.

Chung also said he was not expecting a high turnout, as young voters do not believe elections can bring meaningful changes.

“The biggest problem is that people have lost faith in elections … the credibility of the political system has been damaged,” he added.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official think tank The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, agreed that the recent controversies may not matter much.

“Even the Lantau proposal is too far ahead in time,” Lau said, in a reference to Lam’s controversial plan to reclaim 1,700 hectares of land off Lantau Island to house 1.1 million people.

However, Lee still hopes that the reclamation proposal could at least drive the grass roots and middle class to poll stations on Sunday.

“The middle class will be concerned about the burden on future generations, while the grass roots will think the proposal cannot solve their urgent needs,” he said, adding he hope turnout rate could reach 50 per cent. The Lantau plan is expected to take decades to complete, costing upwards of HK$500 billion (US$63.8 billion).

Yet he conceded that a former ally of the camp, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, 65, would pose a challenge to his campaign.

Lee’s arch-rival, though, is Chan. The pro-establishment candidate was seen canvassing with former health minister Ko Wing-man, whom she served under as political assistant from 2012 to 2017.

During an election forum on Tuesday, Chan said she intended to put citizens’ welfare above politics.

She initially did not state her political affiliation, but later admitted to being a member of the pro-establishment camp at an event attended by leaders from the camp.

On social media, Chan stuck to promoting her welfare policy ideas, such as lengthening paternity leave for workers and improving public health care services.

A source in the pro-establishment camp told the Post earlier that Chan was picked as their candidate on the condition she promise to serve only one term.

Two other candidates, IT worker Ng Dick-hay, 54, and independent Judy Tzeng Li-wen, 50, are not expected to take a significant share of the vote.

Ng, who got 2,202 votes when he ran for a Hong Kong Island seat in the March by-election, said he was confident of doing better this time.

Tzeng, who is not affiliated with any political party, said she was running as a localist candidate.

Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung