Put livelihood issues ahead of political ideals, Hong Kong’s democrats told after bruising by-election defeat
- After losing last two polls in supposed opposition stronghold, pro-democracy camp left contemplating destructiveness of disunity
Consecutive defeats in by-elections for Hong Kong’s legislature on Sunday and in March have left the city’s pro-democracy politicians searching for answers and facing calls to prioritise livelihood issues over political ideals.
Pan-democrats have expressed alarm after veteran campaigner and former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan lost to pro-establishment candidate Chan Hoi-yan in the Kowloon West constituency.
The margin of defeat was even wider than in March in an area which has traditionally been an opposition stronghold.
Experts said the camp needed to focus on recapturing moderate voters.
Despite a more united campaign from the splintered pro-democracy camp, their efforts succeeded in raising turnout by only 0.14 of a percentage point, to 44.4 per cent.
The two seats up for grabs were originally held by Yau Wai-ching and Lau Siu-lai. The pair and another lawmaker, Edward Yiu Chung-yim, were ousted alongside three other legislators over improper oaths of office in 2016.
Yiu lost his bid to regain the seat in the March by-election, succumbing to pro-government legislator Vincent Cheng Wing-shun.
The democrats and their offshoot localists used to enjoy a clear advantage in Kowloon West, having captured 62.7 per cent in the 2012 Legislative Council elections. Even after the emergence of localist candidates in the 2016 poll who fractured the pro-democracy vote, the bloc still managed to win 57.5 per cent.
But the loss in March spurred a greater focus for Sunday on grass-roots districts which Yiu had paid less attention to.
The pro-government camp won almost half of the vote in both March and on Sunday by playing up livelihood issues. Their share in the constituency had until then never exceeded 40 per cent.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political scientist who has coordinated several pan-democratic election campaigns over the past decade, said the defeat showed the camp had lost support among moderate voters swayed by Chan’s agenda of economic development and focus on the everyday needs of the poor.
Alan Leong Kah-kit, chairman of the Civic Party, said the two poll results clearly showed many voters were tired of partisan politics.
“Voters didn’t care that much about party ideology. Whoever makes suggestions for solving livelihood issues, voters will give that candidate a chance,” he said.
Pro-government politicians were more skilled at winning the backing of working class Hongkongers, Cheng and Leong said, and livelihood issues “must be the way forward” for the entire pro-democracy camp.
Constructive policy solutions were needed instead of simple criticism of the government, Cheng said.
“Hong Kong people remain rational and reasonable and I think we have to win over the moderate voters with constructive arguments,” he said.
With the rise of localists and pro-independence youth, Cheng added that he was worried the infighting within the pro-democracy bloc could cost the camp another defeat down the line.
Lawmaker Au Nok-hin of Council Front also stressed the importance of unity between localist groups and traditional pro-democracy parties.
“The camp constitutes supporters of traditional pro-democracy parties as well as localist groups. But those supporting localism have completely lost their confidence in the political institutions, as candidates they support are barred from elections,” Au said.
Cracks in the camp seeped through a show of unity at a press conference on Monday attended by 10 pan-democratic lawmakers, when each gave different reasons for the bloc’s defeat.
Camp convenor Claudia Mo Man-ching apologised for a failure to dispel the “sense of helplessness” many supporters felt towards elections.
Lee meanwhile attributed his defeat partly to an alleged smear campaign by rivals and the participation of former ally Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who bagged 12,509 ballots and splintered the vote.
But radical pro-democracy campaigner and former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung had a different take.
“It is no use trying to blame anyone else. It’s the voters’ choice. If people don’t want to vote for you, there’s little you can do,” he said.
“We politicians are only products on the shelf. It is up to the people whether they want to take us.”
Mo was then quick to interrupt Leung by saying: “I have to say that the pan-democratic camp is now at an unprecedented stage of unity.
“We might have lost two battles, but we have not lost the war.”
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung