Posted: Oct. 17, 2011
With only days to go before the November 6th District Councils election, nothing has happened to dispel the clouds looming for months over pan-democrats’ campaign efforts (Aug. 24 post). At the district level, democratic candidates have taken a back seat since elections were introduced in the 1980s, when the new neighborhood advisory bodies were called District Boards. Hong Kong’s young democracy movement set its sights higher and focused on the Legislative Council where aspirations could be championed to greater effect. As a result, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its network of allied groups now dominate the 18 District Councils.
Their mandate is renewed every four years and the pro-Beijing coalition has been busy since the 1990s building on the tradition of informal associations and self-help societies that have always been part of local life. Democrats made unexpected gains in the 2003 election, exploiting popular anger over the government’s attempt to force acceptance of national security legislation. But the main proprietors of this turf successfully reclaimed it in 2007.
Ada Wong, a member of Hong Kong Island’s Wanchai District Council from 2000 to 2007, explained the difficulties for pan-democrats in practical terms at one of last year’s many public meetings on electoral reform. No matter how many banners we put up on the streets and how many sound trucks we send through neighborhoods, she said, the other side always has more of everything: fliers, loud speakers, candidates, and above all organization.* Most important are the permanent paid staffers in DAB district offices where someone is always on hand to organize events and help residents with whatever troubles them. None of the pro-democracy parties and groups can boast comparable resources, which makes it impossible for them to compete in the districts on a level playing field.
Since it would have been the principal beneficiary, the DAB was naturally a forthright champion of last year’s political reform package. As originally drafted, this would have created a single constituency of all 400 District Councilors and allowed them to select five of their number to become Legislative Councilors. The idea was to increase the number of such indirectly-elected legislators over time and let them replace those now selected by the controversial “small-circle” occupation-based constituencies. Their representatives account for half of all legislators.
The new District Councils constituency will still nominate candidates from among its 400+ members. Only they will have the right to nominate and be nominated, and candidates will need 15 endorsement signatures to qualify. But in deference to democratic demands, all registered voters will be able make the final choice, from among the qualified candidates, for the five District Councilors who will be able to serve concurrently as Legislative Councilors. They are already being called “super legislators” because of their special status.
This change has added a new dimension and raises the stakes for district races where constituencies are small, turnout low, and councilors focus on neighborhood services. Whether pro-democracy candidates will benefit from the heightened interest is something else again. No one is predicting anything but doom and gloom — except for the pro-Beijing camp, which anticipates another sweeping victory built on its 2007 revival. For pan-democrats, the indicators are almost all negative.
To qualify as a candidate, registered voters must be over 21 years of age and collect the nominating signatures of 10 other registered voters in the relevant constituency. Only those who fail to win 5% of the vote will lose their HK$3,000 candidate’s deposit. ** But easy as it is to stand as a candidate, the first big batch of winners was called as soon as the nominating period ended on September 28th.
A record 935 candidates registered to contest the combined total 412 seats open to election in the 18 District Councils’ 412 constituencies — with over 70 uncontested. Once the Electoral Affairs Commission finished processing and vetting, the final figures were 915 candidates eligible to run in 336 constituencies, with 76 uncontested — up from only 40 in 2007. Almost all the uncontested seats will be filled by the DAB, its allies, and other pro-government candidates. *** The DAB alone can claim 35 of the seats and is already boasting that it has won enough to nominate two “super legislators” next year.
CHALLENGE FROM WITHIN
Why so many uncontested seats? Incumbents’ advantage plus pan-democrats’ inability to compete at this level are the main reasons. Another is pan-democrat infighting and the collapse of the “coordination mechanism,” used since 2003 to keep democratic candidates from opposing each other in any given constituency. Unlike Legislative Council elections that use proportional representation in multi-seat districts, District Council seats are filled from small single-seat constituencies where the British winner-takes-all tradition applies. In these constituencies with turnouts of only a few thousand voters each, when three candidates vie for the same seat and two are democrats, the other side usually wins. But thanks to last year’s split between so-called radicals and moderates over the latter’s compromise on political reform, some radicals dropped out of the coordination exercise.
Despite repeated pleas, dire warnings — and expectations that in the end he would not go through with his pledge “to teach the Democratic Party a lesson” for leading the compromise — Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man [ 黃毓民 ] is adamant. Early this year, he broke with his old League of Social Democrats comrades over this issue among others (Jan.24, 2011 post). His new People Power [Renmin liliang] movement has grown rapidly since then absorbing the lion’s share of LSD radical strength plus that of Emily Lau’s old Frontier fighters and young people energized by last year’s many campaigns. LSD leaders have since dropped out of the coordination mechanism but there is as yet no sign of a re-marriage between the two groups. They rally separately with black and yellow People Power and Frontier banners, carried by young and old alike, outnumbering LSD red flags by at least three-to-one.
Howls of outrage (from moderates) rose as soon as the preliminary uncontested seat figures were calculated because along with them came the calculations of seats being contested by more than two candidates more than one of whom is a democrat. The radicals (People Power, Voters Power, and LSD) are deliberately challenging Democratic Party candidates in some 40 constituencies and Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (ADPL) hopefuls in nine.
When asked why he is willing to lose seats to the DAB by parachuting untried candidates into the same constituency alongside other democrats, Raymond Wong makes no apologies. Neither does People Power chairman, Christopher Lau Gar-hung [劉嘉鴻]. They scorn the coordination mechanism for agreeing in advance to parcel out pan-democracy candidates among the constituencies because it has created sinecure seats for some, stifled debate, and has not stopped the DAB’s advance. Since TV advertising is banned and strict equal-time rules are enforced for TV programming, candidates do it mostly the old-fashioned way. Within days of the September 28 announcement, People Power campaigners were on the streets handing out 100,000 copies of a slick new 30-page pamphlet explaining their reasons.
People Power says that Democratic Party negotiators betrayed the democracy movement by breaking their promise and compromising last year on a phony deal that may provide their candidates with a few more seats but does nothing to advance the cause of Hong Kong’s democratic development. They and those who went along with them have forfeited their democratic credentials and gone over to the government side so there is nothing to distinguish between them and the DAB (also: www.peoplepower.hk ).
When asked why they didn’t use more of their candidates to fill some of the empty slots in uncontested constituencies, People Power replies with its reasons: to teach the Democratic Party a lesson. Wong and Lau want especially to keep Democratic Party candidates from winning any of the extra seats that came with the political reform package they brokered. The radicals ask why moderates failed to contest more constituencies themselves. We would have if we could, they reply to taunts of lackluster leadership and weak-kneed resolve from their tormenters. Defending its line up, the Democratic Party points out that it is trying harder than in 2007 when it ran 108 candidates compared to 132 this year.
As for pro-Beijing partisans, their election machinery is humming along so far without a hitch. The DAB alone is fielding 182 candidates, 114 of whom are incumbents. Their allies include the Federation of Trade Unions and Civil Force, a group founded by DAB vice-chairman Lau Kong-wah, plus the New Territories, Kowloon, and Hong Kong Island Associations of Societies. All DAB candidates and allies are carefully coordinated leaving no crossed wires in any constituency.
RADICALS vs. MODERATES vs. THE DAB
A key contest to watch is the one underway in Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho’s Lok Tsui constituency. He has, since 1999, represented its voters on the Tuen Mun District Council in the northern New Territories region of Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing strategists did what would be expected by assigning a second-tier candidate from one of their satellite organizations to contest Ho’s district. This would have guaranteed him a safe re-election victory — to acknowledge his role in brokering last year’s political reform compromise without actually handing him the seat on a silver platter.
The plan would surely have succeeded had a complication not appeared just before nominations closed in the form of one more candidate: People Power legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, a leader of last year’s referendum campaign. Their announced aim is to topple Ho who has said he will resign as Democratic Party chairman if he is defeated. Only Raymond Wong himself would stand a better chance of generating enough competitive interest to achieve the desired goal, making this constituency a key test of his defiant gamble.
Other tests of radical strength include the challenge by LSD legislator “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung who is targeting DAB stalwart Ip Kwok-him. Long Hair is parachuting into the Kwun Lung constituency where Ip easily defeated two other candidates in 2007, to win a seat on Hong Kong Island’s Central and Western District Council. (Ip received 2,700 votes, the others 477 votes combined.) He wants to use the seat as a stepping stone to become one of the five new “super legislators.” Leung aims to dislodge the stone if he can. Democratic Party vice-chairman Sin Chung-kai is also eyeing a super seat and People Power chairman Christopher Lau aims to block him. Only in this case both are parachuting into alien territory currently occupied by a protégé of everyone’s bête noire, Regina Ip.
First time People Power candidate Edward Yum is challenging veteran pro-Beijing trade union leader Chan Yuen-han in the working class district of Wong Tai Sin. He is “Mudgrass Ma” who precipitated the People Power/LSD split over his arrest on a rape charge. The case was later dropped. Chan was coaxed out of retirement as one of the few pro-Beijing politicians with enough territory-wide name-recognition to secure a super seat in next year’s Legislative Council election. He is challenging her to a debate. She will probably win whether she debates or not — especially since there is also a Democratic Party candidate contesting the same Wong Tai Sin seat.
A LOSING STRATEGY?
The answer depends on definitions of winning and losing. As everyone knows, election fields are littered with the bones of politicians who tried parachuting into other people’s constituencies. Probably neither Albert Chan nor Long Hair will be able to unseat their opponents and they are the strongest of the radical candidates entering the lists. Both challengers know the rules, so what are they hoping to achieve with a strategy that seems calculated to benefit pro-government politicians?
Since they are all still failing to publicly articulate the links between the mainland indirectly-elected party-controlled people’s congress system and the DAB’s plans for a similar indirectly-elected system built on the District Councils, we need to focus on what the radicals are actually doing instead of what they are not saying. We will also ignore the mischievous whispers of pro-Beijing tea house pundits who speculate that Raymond Wong is actually a secret communist party member. They like to think he might be following in the footsteps of pro-democracy icon Szeto Wah whose posthumous memoirs are still resonating in these circles (July 25, 2011 post).
Assuming Raymond Wong is what he has always claimed to be, namely an ardent anti-communist democrat, his aim must be to do what Hong Kong’s democracy campaigners have always done after every disappointment. When officials and institutions fail to deliver, activists improvise as their only means of keeping people engaged and the issues alive. People Power and LSD radicals seem to have written off the District Councils as a lost cause so winning or losing seats is not their concern. Whether the strategy is able to grow electoral constituencies also seems beside the point. The aim is to use the 2011 District Councils election campaign to preserve and strengthen the energy generated by last year’s political reform drive — and perhaps pressure some aging moderates into stiffening their resolve as well. As for the voters, opinion polls are not yet available so how the public will judge all this is anyone’s guess.
* University of Hong Kong, Nov. 27, 2010.
*** Electoral Affairs Commission website; also, Ming Pao Daily News, Sept. 29, Wen Wei Po, Sept. 29 and Oct. 11.