The disqualification of two inexperienced but high-profile pro-independence politicians from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council throws up an uncomfortable question for their supporters: isn’t a vote for localism a wasted ballot?
While many of those who had backed the Youngspiration candidates Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching in the September Legco elections said their support for the localist cause had not been swayed by their disqualification, others said they might reconsider their votes if their two vacated seats went to a by-election, as is expected.
The pair became the first to be disqualified from Legco when the High Court judge Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung ruled they “did not truthfully and faithfully” intend to commit to the oath during their swearing-in ceremony on October 12. The pair had used a derogatory term to refer to mainland China during the ceremony, later claiming their accents had been misunderstood – a claim believed by few, not least the High Court judge.
His ruling – now being heard at the Court of Appeal – brings to an end a shambolic few weeks for the young pair and underlines criticisms levelled at them even before their election that inexperience would undermine their ability to fight what was already a fringe cause against a well-versed establishment.
A media circus has surrounded the pair since their election on September 4, but their detractors say the coverage exaggerates the amount of support they received.
Under the proportional representation system used in Hong Kong – which divides half of Legco’s 70 seats between five geographical constituencies – concentrated support for the pair in their neighbourhoods meant that (had they not been disqualified) they would have wielded an influence out of proportion to their votes.
Together the pair polled 58,000 or about 2.6 per cent of nearly 2.2 million votes across the SAR, with Leung (who won 37,997 votes) taking one of nine seats in the New Territories East constituency and Yau (who won 20,643 votes) taking one of six seats in Kowloon West. She nudged out another radical lawmaker, the two-term Wong Yuk-man, by 424 votes. But the pair’s wins meant they would have controlled almost six per cent of the geographical seats.
WATCH: Legco chaos as Youngspiration candidates force way into chamber
Of course, such quirks of proportional representation are not confined to Hong Kong’s version of the system – and neither are they new. Fringe candidates have long been able to prosper in the city – for instance, the radical League of Social Democrats’ lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, better known as ‘Long Hair Leung’ and famed for his penchant of throwing bananas at rivals in the legislature and for a brief stint in jail, has been able to keep his seat since 2004.
And in the latest election, independent candidate Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, whose platform contained a mix of environmental protection, anti-indigenous villager sentiment and calls for self-determination, managed to scoop 84,121 votes in New Territories West – more votes than any other lawmaker.
Indeed, a preponderance of radical candidates in her own constituency meant Yau herself had faced a spread of the vote. In Kowloon West 85,856 (just over 30 per cent) of the 278,871 valid ballots cast were split between Yau and three other radical or localist candidates, including the League of Social Democrats’ Avery Ng Man-yuen, Wong Yuk-man and Lau Siu-lai.
But while radical candidates may have traditionally benefitted from the quirks of the system, Yau and Leung’s mishandling of the oath-taking saga may have squandered not only their own advantage, but that of the localist cause itself.
Had the pair waited until after they were sworn in to turn up the rhetoric, Youngspiration would still have a voice in the legislative chamber.
Yet in striking prematurely, their actions effectively forced Beijing to issue an interpretation of the Basic Law – the national legislature ruled on November 7 that lawmakers who refuse to pledge allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China would lose their seats – a development that undermines and prevents any future localist candidate from gaining traction.
That hasn’t gone down well with their supporters, many of whom told This Week in Asia they had been put off choosing another Youngspiration candidate, and some saying they would not even vote for another localist group.
Of 40 people who voted for Yau or Leung who spoke to This Week in Asia, just 12 said they would be willing to vote for Youngspiration candidates again. Twenty-two said they were hoping to vote for localists from other groups – either because they were disappointed by the pair’s performance or put off by their inexperience. Four said they were considering transferring their vote to the pan-democrats and two said they would definitely do so, citing a loss of confidence following the oath-taking saga.
“There are many ways to protest inside the council, they should not have done something so risky until they had their seats confirmed,” said civil servant Jaime Lin, 24, a Yau voter.
“My support towards the self-determination ideology did not wither, it’s just that their political intelligence and planning were much more immature than I expected. I will likely vote for a pan-democrat because localists really need more time for their experience to grow until they can be strong enough to fight against the institution,” Lin said.
His disappointment was echoed by another Leung supporter, Catherine Kwok.
“They have left us [the supporters] no moral grounds to support what they said. Whatever they chose to do, it should not be at the cost of the seat,” said social worker Kwok, 31, who voted for Leung to give a voice to pro-independence views.
However, Kwok ruled out switching her support to the pro-democracy pan-democrat camp.
“Voting for another pan-democrat would bring no new stimulation to the council,” Kwok said. “I am expecting another better quality localist to run for by-election, hopefully someone other than the Youngspiration guys.”
A quick scan of the voter rolls shows Yau’s biggest vote clusters were from polling stations in the middle-class areas of Hung Hom and Kowloon City and working-class Yau Ma Tei. Yau’s strongest support base was in Hung Hom’s Whampoa Garden – Kowloon’s largest private housing estate – which netted her 829 votes. The residential complex includes the Whampoa East constituency where Yau only narrowly lost to pro-Beijing lawmaker Dr Priscilla Leung Mei-fun in last year’s district council elections.
Leung had more public than private housing estate polling stations in his top 10 performing areas. One of his strongholds was an area in Tseung Kwan O that includes the public housing estates of Sheung Tak, Kwong Ming Court and Po Ming Court. In Fanling, he also did well in the cluster of Wah Sum Estate, Dawning Views and Avon Park.
Seven of his top 10 polling stations were in the neighbourhoods that coughed up the most votes for another localist, Hong Kong Indigenous candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei, in the February by-election. He managed to hold on to Edward Leung’s support base after stepping in because the latter was disqualified from running for elections over his pro-independence views.
But not everyone who had voted for the Youngspiration duo were so unforgiving of the pair, both still in their 20s.
“Young people are like this, they are desperate to let their voice be heard and sometimes do not think carefully of the consequence of their actions, but it was not such a big mistake and I would like to vote for the same candidates again,” said retired leather businessman Stephen Ng, 67, who had voted for Leung.
But the more pessimistic of their supporters said they did not believe any Youngspiration or localist candidates would be even be allowed to run in future elections, and were prepared that they would not be able to vote for their preferred candidate.
WATCH: Hong Kong government takes rebel lawmakers to court over oath
“No matter what, I would rather abstain from voting than vote for a non-localist candidate,” said logistic industry worker James Yeung, 30, a supporter of Leung.
Others said they would “vote in tears” for pan-democrat candidates if all localists were barred. “After all, the most important thing is not to let pro-establishment candidates win the seats,” said Yau supporter Karl Wong, 27.
With additional reporting by Shirley Zhao