Posted: Aug. 24, 2011
Hong Kong may not have an elected government but onlookers would never know it from the sights and sounds of August, heading into a year that will see four separate local contests. If one of the prerequisites for achieving democracy is a population accustomed to electoral ways and means, then Hong Kong is well on its way regardless of Beijing’s endless delaying tactics.
First in line is the territory-wide District Councils election on November 6. Election of the Election Committee follows on December 11. This 1,200-member body is elected by an assortment of community leaders and organizations, divided into four sectors, 38 subsectors, and so on. Nominations will be finalized in November. The total number of registered electors is about 250,000. They are by-and-large the same people who form the Functional Constituencies responsible for electing half the Legislative Council. Regardless of who it elects, this cumbersome arrangement is designed to guarantee “safe” conservative outcomes.
Once formed, the Election Committee’s job is to endorse Beijing’s approved candidate to succeed Chief Executive Donald Tsang for the 2012-2017 term. CE nominations will end on March 4 next year. The endorsement “election” is scheduled for March 25. His successor will take office on July First and preside over the grand finale Legislative Council contest in September 2012, to choose all 70 of the newly-expanded council’s directly-elected and indirectly-elected members. The government’s June-August voter registration drive is just ending. Provisional figures show an all-time high of 3.5 million registered voters or roughly half the total population, but the public has always been more willing to register than vote. Since universal suffrage elections were introduced in the early 1980s, turnout rates have rarely exceeded 50% of those registered.
DAMAGE CONTROL: A Mock Chief Executive Election Campaign
Radical people-power activism and its rising young stars have dominated political headlines for most of the past year but attention now is refocusing on the Democratic Party. Its once formidable election machine, built in the 1990s, may be battered and bruised but the successors to founding fathers Martin Lee and Szeto Wah are once again preparing their troops for battle. Leaders Albert Ho, Emily Lau, and the others are reminding everyone that whatever its failings, among pan-democrats their party still occupies the largest number of elected council seats — 8 legislators and 52 District Councilors — and all aim to defend their incumbent advantages as best they can.
After keeping the lowest of profiles during this year’s big June Fourth and July First demonstrations and the revelations about Szeto Wah’s early pro-communist leanings, party leaders are now reemerging to polish their populist credentials tarnished during last year’s campaigns. Just as the pro-Beijing analyst predicted: since others are now setting the pace, Democratic Party leaders will have to adapt to the expanding arena those others have created or forfeit the party’s weakened claim to leadership among pan-democrats as a whole (June 14 post). The decision to join the Chief Executive election contest was calculated accordingly. So too was the decision to try and stage a mock primary election beforehand.
Discussing those decisions last spring before they were made, party vice chairman Sin Chung-kai recalled that in 2007, the then newly formed Civic Party had put forward a candidate and raised its public profile in the process. His party now wanted to assume the “dragon’s head” role, he said, and take the lead among pan-democrats by sponsoring a candidate. Chairman Albert Ho has volunteered to carry the dragon’s banner.
The whole exercise is, of course, a formality. Without Beijing’s endorsement, no candidate can win a majority of votes from the conservative Election Committee. Everyone is nevertheless welcome to try if they can obtain enough nomination signatures from committee members. Their total number has just been increased from 800 to 1,200 but the proportion of nominating endorsements remains the same. The required number now is 150 sponsors among the 1,200 committee members. Given the conservative design of its constituencies, few pro-democracy sympathizers can win seats on the committee. It follows that aspiring pro-democracy candidates for Chief Executive are hard-pressed even to obtain the necessary number of committee nominations much less prevail on Election Day. In 2007, the 800-member committee provided Civic Party candidate Alan Leong with more nominations than actual Election Day votes (132 nominations; 123 votes).
The idea of joining the selection process was not new even in 2007 and has always been controversial among pan-democrats because their participation in a contest they cannot win lends credence and legitimacy to an arrangement they oppose. On the other hand, besides providing them with extra publicity, their participation also highlights the scheme’s rubber-stamp routines and advertizes them to a wider public that has no role in the selection process.
The Democratic Party’s latest idea of adding a popular mock primary carries that argument a step further. They are proposing to sponsor voting by iPad computer tablets at hundreds of street corner voting “booths” to be set up around town. The aim is to give all Hong Kong residents (not just the registered voters among them) a virtual opportunity to choose from a list of candidates who will hopefully emerge. Whether anyone else will want to join an exercise designed to popularize Albert Ho’s candidacy and bolster his party’s appeal remains to be seen. The aim, he says, is to prepare the public for 2017 when, according to Beijing’s promise, Hong Kong can elect its Chief Executive via universal suffrage.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Whatever the benefits, not everyone agrees and another party vice chair, Emily Lau, is burnishing her image by saying so. Instead of defying her base and daring the public to accept her changed stand as she did last year over the political reform package, Lau used her old voice to blast the whole Chief Executive selection process. In a recent broadcast statement she explained that she had never approved of democrats participating in what she regarded as an illegitimate exercise and her views on the subject remain unchanged. Having joined the Democratic Party she would respect its decision, but reserve her right to differ openly. The “never ending struggle for democracy” must continue, she said, and we must state clearly that “only the person handpicked by Beijing and the tycoons will win.”
She then went on to denounce the current list of front runners among the “real” (pro-establishment) candidates, that is, the three most-frequently mentioned although no one has yet formally declared their intentions. They are, in order of popularity according to opinion polls: Rita Fan, one-time colonial official, now Hong Kong’s representative on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress; Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang, in effect the current deputy Chief Executive who is being groomed to succeed Donald Tsang; and pro-business pro-Beijing Executive Councilor Leung Chun-ying. Said Emily Lau: “What the three have in common is that they will do what they are told by the central government and they are not willing to stand up for the rights of the Hong Kong people.”* Gone are last year’s comments about the Democratic Party’s shrinking base and its new shift to the moderate center — gone at least for now.
ANOTHER DISTRICT-LEVEL DISASTER IN THE MAKING?
Costs and benefits aside, contesting the Chief Executive election is just for show. The District Councils are for real and the omens for pan-democrats are not good. These councils, 18 in all, have a total of 400+ members, 80% of whom are directly elected. One drawback at this level is an electorate divided into 400 small fragmented constituencies, each with only a few thousand voters. These usually attract only two candidates who focus only on neighborhood amenities. The government has promised to phase out the additional unelected councilors but when and how is not yet known. These appointments have been used to reinforce the conservative pro-government tilt of all 18 councils, especially helpful when they are called upon to endorse controversial government policies like last year’s political reform package.
Government appointees are the least of pan-democrats’ worries at this level, however. The conservative tilt itself goes back to the councils’ beginnings, in the early 1980s, and barring a major redesign will be impossible to change. The net result, as editorial writers are finally beginning to acknowledge openly, is that all the District Councils are now dominated by the pro-Beijing party and its densely organized ground game of well-funded conservative allies. The party is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), generally assumed to be a surrogate for the still unacknowledged local branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Pan-democrats have been complaining for a decade about their inability to mobilize comparable resources at the district level. But the issue was allowed to slide because the councils were only advisory bodies and of no apparent political importance. Now they are important given the government’s attempt to use District Councilors as mainland-style building blocks for indirect elections to the Legislative Council.
Pan-democrats made some gains in 2003, by exploiting the momentum created during the national security protest movement. But all the 2003 gains were wiped out in 2007 by a skillful DAB-orchestrated comeback strategy. Democrats won elected majorities on only two councils with parity on one other. Exact figures are difficult to calculate due to the large number of “independents,” most of whom are not independent of partisan loyalties. The DAB alone won 115 seats; all pro-democracy parties combined captured only 93. The latter then carried on as usual and sacrificed their one remaining council chairmanship on the altar of factional infighting.
Will pan-democrats be able to stage a comeback of their own on November 6? No one is optimistic about the Democratic Party’s ability to lead the way and a July 24 special election sent tremors of foreboding throughout the camp. The election followed the death of a DP District Councilor last May. In 2007, he won the seat with 1,777 votes to his pro-Beijing opponent’s 1,444. On July 24, the vote count was DP candidate: 1,006 votes; pro-Beijing challenger: 2,086.
The reason for so great a shift is not clear but DP strategists acknowledge that overall they are now under pressure from two sides, one known the other new. The greatest threat will come from their traditional pro-Beijing pro-establishment rivals; the other lies within their own constituencies. DP leaders worry that pro-democracy voters will remember last year’s threat to “teach them a lesson at the ballot box” for their compromise decision on political reform. The party is nevertheless soldiering on with a plan to field about 125 candidates including 45 incumbents, roughly the same as in previous elections. DP candidates won 53 seats in 2007. Chairman Albert Ho has earned the nickname “Iron Head” for his stubborn defense of last year’s compromise and strategists say this year’s candidates will stand by that decision.
Worries are underlined by the breakdown of the “coordination mechanism,” used since 2003 to discipline pro-democracy candidates and prevent factions from splitting the vote by running against each other. Academic and Civic Party member Joseph Cheng is the unsung hero of this exercise and has successfully guided the tedious negotiations since 2003, to guarantee that there is only one democratic candidate per constituency. This year six parties are participating. The DP will account for about half the total number of their anticipated 250 candidates.
The radical People Power group that split from the League of Social Democrats over this very issue is still refusing to go along with the others. People Power leader, Wong Yuk-man, anticipates that about a third of his group’s 50-60 candidates will be challenging other pan-democrats especially the DP. The LSD’s plans have yet to be announced; it was not one of the six coordinating parties.
Candidate lists and platforms are still being finalized by all but pan-democrats are definitely the underdogs while their main antagonist is advancing like the purpose-built steam roller it has become. Democrats began candidate coordination after 2003 and the DAB began a recruiting drive. Membership grew from 2,000 to 10,000 between 2005 and 2007, and now stands at 20,000, replicating its mass-based CCP mentor. The Democratic Party currently has only about 770 members.
DAB candidates in November will number around 200. Fund-raising is no problem. Neither is discipline. DAB members and candidates never quarrel in public. They also never discuss the institutional details of their party’s mainland ties. All candidates will contest their seats, as usual, on the basis of the party’s record in providing more services to constituents than pan-democrats can even dream of offering. Also never discussed is the DAB’s strategy of coordinating its own candidate lists and campaign platform with like-minded groups that never acknowledge their political affiliations. At this level, among neighbors, everyone likes to invoke the old conservative colonial mantra about comfort, harmony, and the average person’s aversion to discordant partisan politics.
For pan-democrats, the only real chance of blocking the DAB’s advance in November is, ironically, the 2010 political reform compromise that has split their movement. This is because the reform has officially politicized the District Councils by trying to turn them into the stepping stones of a mainland-style indirectly-elected CCP-controlled people’s congress system. As a result, it will be far more difficult this year for the DAB’s District Council candidates to maintain their a-political service-provider-only innocence since the Democratic Party can only hope to boost its flagging popularity by advertising the one advantage it secured from last year’s political reform compromise.
Instead of letting the 400+ District Councilors elect five new legislators from among their own number, as the government and the DAB were initially proposing last year, all registered voters will now be able to vote for or against the candidates. District Councilors will still do the nominating and the candidates must be District Councilors. But the public will be able to “learn by doing” what was never clearly explained last year. If voters do not want to see five DAB-affiliated legislators filling those five new Legislative Council seats, voters will first need to elect pro-democracy District Council candidates rather than those from a party that can afford full-time paid staffers who organize the best special-price lunches and weekend diversions.
* http://programme.rthk.org.hk/channel/radio/, Aug. 7, 2011. According to a South China Morning Post-commissioned Hong Kong University-conducted opinion poll, the popularity ranking of the three leading contenders in June was: Fan, 33%; Tang, 10%; Leung, 8 %; others plus don’t knows, 48% (SCMP, July 3; Xin bao/HK Economic Journal, July 12).