Posted: Nov. 14, 2011 … (updated Nov. 21)
Sure enough, Hong Kong’s political battlefields are now littered with the bones of pro-democracy fighters who tried parachuting into other people’s territory despite the known risks. Radicals wanted to teach moderates and especially the Democratic Party a lesson for reneging on their 2010 political reform pledges. Others including both moderates and radicals thought they could exploit the new opportunities that came with the 2010 reform package and turned District Council seats into stepping stones for admission to the Legislative Council. Both strategies failed marking the greatest setback for Hong Kong’s democracy movement since 1997, and the most important election victory ever for pro-Beijing forces. These are led by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) ally.
The result of the November 6th District Councils election was not just a defeat for pan-democrats but a rout, built on losses that have been accumulating untended for years. Each of 412 constituencies sends one representative to sit on Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils, but elections this year were held in only 336 constituencies. Candidates in 76 others were elected unopposed and only one of the 76 was a democrat. The basic line-up of winners and losers:
|(contested & unopposed)|
|(as of Sept. 28)||(as of Nov. 7)|
|DAB/FTU||201||148||115 (dab only)|
Figures are calculated from the Electoral Affairs Commission official candidate lists (http://www.eac.gov.hk/ ), and partisan affiliation of independents update based on Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 8.
pan-dems. DP – Democratic Party; ADPL – Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood; Civics – Civic Party; Neo-dems – New Democratic Alliance; NWSC – Neighborhood and Workers Service Center; PP/PV/F – People Power/Power Voters/Frontier; LSD – League of Social Democrats; others – Confederation of Trade Unions, Land and Justice League, Power for Democracy, Citizens Radio, Democratic Coalition, independent democrats, etc.
pro-govt. DAB/FTU – Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong/Federation of Trade Unions; CF – Civil Force; LP – Liberal Party; ES – Economic Synergy; New PP – New People’s Party; others – Hong Kong, Kowloon, New Territories Associations of Societies; New Century Forum; independents, undeclared, etc.
Note: independent pro-democracy candidates usually identify their orientation but pro-government independents and undeclared candidates usually do not so these “independent” partisan divisions are approximations only. In the last (2007) District Councils election, the HK, KN, and NT Associations of Societies were major identified candidate sponsors, but this year accounted for only three declarations. (Update, Nov. 21: seven independent winners, originally calculated as pro-government, have since been identified as pan-democrats.)
Opinion polls will hopefully offer some more precise measure of what people were thinking and why they voted as they did but there was little indication before Election Day that the results would be quite so dramatic. In the meantime, matching up what candidates said and did with voters’ responses is a good place to begin.
Most striking was the defeat suffered by the radical people power movement. Of the pro-democracy parties listed above, only the first two, the Democratic Party and the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, supported the 2010 reform package and gave the government the support needed for Legislative Council approval. But only the last two of those pro-democracy parties opted to use the election to punish DP and ADPL candidates for compromising on the 2010 reforms. The others joined the pre-election candidate coordination exercise and avoided stepping on one another’s’ toes.
The People Power coalition led by Raymond Wong Yuk-man, together with the League of Social Democrats led by Andrew To and “Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, consequently parachuted into DP and ADPL constituencies all over town. The challengers campaigned under the slogan “a vote for a vote” ( 票債票償 ) meaning a debt to be paid in votes for the 2010 betrayal of promises made at that time. Many of these radical candidates were young first-timers on the campaign trail and new to the constituencies as well. A few others were veterans most notably People Power legislator Albert Chan who wanted to deprive DP chairman Albert Ho of enough votes to dislodge him from the District Council seat he has held for several years (Oct. 17 post).
They said their aim was to generate greater public understanding of their cause rather than to win seats but ultimately they did neither and called somber press conferences to admit the failure of their election stratgy. There was no spinning the consequences to positive advantage since of 89 candidates who campaigned under the “vote for a vote” slogan, only one was successful in winning a seat himself. Most did not even receive enough votes to harm their intended targets. People Power candidates made the difference in only four constituencies to deprive DP candidates of victory. Two of the seats were won by the DAB and two by independents. Both the DP’s Albert Ho and ADPL chairman Frederick Fung survived with votes to spare, and the LSD could not even save its own six incumbents including Andrew To. Long Hair won 970 votes to his hard-line pro-Beijing opponent’s 2,700, almost exactly the same number he received four years ago.
Still, punishment was not reserved for radicals alone although it is not clear whether voters also wanted to reject moderate democrats or only resented them as strangers trying to elbow into constituencies for political gain. But the uninspiring DP vice-chairman Sin Chung-kai lost his bid to unseat a conservative opponent in a middle class district on Hong Kong Island and would have lost even without the challenge of People Power’s chairman. Far away across town in the northern New Territories the same thing happened. Even though he had been widely tipped to win, popular veteran trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan was defeated by the young novice candidate who had a six-year record of DAB/FTU-sponsored community service to her credit in the district.
Even worse for pan-democrats was the ousting of some of their highest profile incumbents, including both radicals and moderates, who were unable to defend their own District Council seats. Radical Civic Party legislator Tanya Chan lost hers to a pro-business Liberal Party candidate in the upscale Peak District of Hong Kong Island. But veteran moderate DP legislator Lee Wing-tat lost his New Territories seat as well. So did another uninspiring DP candidate, legislator Wong Sing-chi.
The only bright spot for democrats was the performance of two small parties, which opposed the 2010 reforms and did well anyway. One was the Neo-Democrats or New Democratic Alliance whose members left the Democratic Party in protest last year. They have a long history in a few New Territories constituencies. So does the Neighborhood and Workers Service Center. This group is organized much like the DAB’s grassroots services along the lines of the old neighborhood volunteer Kai Fong associations.
Ironically given the disdain for electoral politics originally prevailing in pro-Beijing circles here, their politicians are now masters of the game they aim to contain and control. During the past 20 years since the DAB was founded, party leaders have not only learned all the tricks of the electioneering trade. They also apply them with the organizational strength, discipline, and funding that only a rich successful ruling communist party can provide. When fully mobilized, as its 20,000-strong membership was for this election, the combination is hard to beat.
Democrats rightly complain about the unfair advantage pro-Beijing forces enjoy with their unlimited unidentified sources of funding and pervasive social networks. But in addition to all that, the pro-Beijing camp’s adaptive skills allow them to disguise weaknesses and exploit strengths for maximum effect. The 2011 District Councils election campaign was a near-flawless example of how those skills are being put to work in a political system that is purpose built to reward conservatives and curb populist instincts.
When pan-democrats challenged them to debate, pro-Beijing candidates almost always declined. They also refused in all their campaign literature, distributed by each candidate in every constituency, to discuss the pros and cons of political reform or the political system — except to denounce those who had opposed the government’s 2010 reform package. District Council constituencies are about non-political livelihood issues — the provision of grassroots benefits and favors individualized for each constituency and with special emphasis on those most loyal of voters, the elderly. The candidates themselves rarely ventured beyond such practical matters and rarely allowed themselves to be provoked.
Out on street corners with their fliers and campaign teams, pro-Beijing candidates were all sweetness and light. But the same could not be said for the pro-Beijing press that has, for the past two months, kept up a steady stream of invective directed primarily against the Civic Party. This focused on two important legal challenges that party member lawyers helped defend although not in the party’s name. Yet even here the case against them was framed primarily in terms of the implications for ordinary workers’ benefits and employment prospects — the classic ploy of exploiting popular fears for political gain. The message nevertheless struck a responsive grassroots cord and the FTU organized small street marches to publicize the point since pro-Beijing newspapers have the lowest circulation in the territory.
Candidate coordination was based on community service work and familiarity with the constituencies contested. In one rare case, where DAB vice chairman Lau Kong-wah registered at the last minute in his old New Territories bailiwick, the pro-Beijing incumbent who had already registered to defend his seat promptly withdrew from the race. Any controversy was kept well hidden from public view and even the campaign teams were organized for photo calls. Thousands of DAB and FTU volunteers came out to support candidates as needed with banners, posters, street corner handouts, sound trucks, and minivan escort services for old folks on Election Day.
Nothing was left to chance. They even outpaced pan-democrats last summer during the voter registration period when pro-Beijing organizers coordinated with the government’s publicity drive and democrats were noticeable by their absence. Voter turnout was up slightly to 41.4 % from 38.8% in 2007, no doubt in response to all the controversies. But voting patterns reflected in the increased turnout seemed to reflect last summer’s registration drive. A net total 127,000 new voters were added to the rolls and the biggest increase was among seniors aged 61 to 65. Overall about one-quarter of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters are over 60, the age cohort least likely to be impressed by radical politicians and most in need of the DAB’s community services.
After the 2007 election, democrats sacrificed their last District Council chairmanship to factional infighting. This year they won a bare majority in only one New Territories district (Kwai Tsing) — 15 to 14 — and it remains to be seen wehther they will forfeit their right to this lead chair as well. There is only one democrat on each of three councils, none on another (Wanchai), and only a handful on most. These elected councilors will be topped up with 68 government appointees and if past practice is followed all will be pro-government conservatives.
As for District Council work itself, the loss of more pro-democracy seats will make little difference. The councils were never intended to be more than advisory bodies and sounding boards for public opinion on local issues. Since 1997 when the government restored the practice of appointing some members, conservatives all, the councils have essentially been used to guide public opinion and generate support for government policies. But political dynamics are something else again and the consequences of electoral defeat, especially this one, cannot be written off as cavalierly as some did beforehand.
The greatest loss is the defeat of the people power movement now being attributed almost solely to Raymond Wong. His confrontational tactics, rude language, and street theater antics in the Legislative Council chamber are widely disliked by other democrats as well as conservatives. But there was a general recognition among democrats that he was saying the things that someone should say. The original League of Social Democrats, founded in 2006, helped round out the division of labor within the fragmented democracy movement by adding a much-needed boost of energy and enthusiasm. For a time they served as the radical spearhead while others appealed to other constituencies in different ways.
After the letdown over last year’s political reform drive, young people flocked to join the LSD and it seemed set for a leading role. That continued until Wong broke with other LSD leaders first over their failure to defend his protégé Edward Yum who was arrested on a rape charge last December, and then more seriously over the candidate coordination issue. But Wong’s People Power movement seemed to thrive, absorbing the lion’s share of LSD energy along with Emily Lau’s abandoned Frontier fighters, and young people who were inspired by last year’s many campaigns. Thousands turned out for this year’s July First march that convinced the government to re-think its plan for abolishing by-elections. The march also reinforced the conviction among pan-democrats that feet on the ground are at least as important as votes in a ballot box.
Now both the LSD and People Power are defeated and their leaders discredited by failure. The movement as a whole stands to lose an important source of youthful idealism that will be difficult to regain before next year’s Legislative Council election, if at all. Raymond Wong nevertheless sees no danger ahead for the movement and says he has no intention of changing his confrontational style or the “vote for a vote” slogan. He says Albert Ho made a mistake in agreeing to the 2010 compromise political reform bargain and he, Raymond Wong, will not work with the DP again until it acknowledges that mistake. Radical candidates won 10% of the total vote and Wong says this is a good beginning for 2012 when proportional representation rather than first-past-the-post will decide the winners.
The second major cost will come due with that election and its outlines are appearing even before the dust has settled on this one. For his part, DP chairman Albert Ho is saying this election vindicated his compromise political reform decision. But his decision entailed linking the District Councils to the Legislative Council with the addition of five seats in the latter to be filled by District Councilors. The original proposal was that they would choose the five from among themselves. Now only they can nominate and contest but the general public will be allowed to make the final choice.
It soon became apparent, however, that the only District Councilors likely to be approved by voters outside their own small constituencies are politicians that already have territory-wide name recognition. Still no problem, said Ho and other moderates, since pan-democrats have more popular stars in their stable of Legislative Councilors than does the opposition. The only problem is that many do not also occupy seats on the District Councils and their only remedy failed. DP vice-chairman Sin Chung-kai was defeated; so was union leader Lee Cheuk-yan; so was the Civic Party’s Ronny Tong who tried the parachute routine against his party’s wishes. Meanwhile three incumbents were also specifically targeted by the pro-government campaign machine and they failed to retain their seats as well. Tanya Chan lost hers as did Lee Wing-tat and Wong Sin-chi. The only person left standing as a plausible candidate is Albert Ho himself and democrats will be lucky to win one of those five new District Council-linked seats he green lighted.
Pan-democrats single greatest failure, however, derived from their inexplicable refusal to acknowledge much less explain to voters the full implications of their opponent’s successful ground game. DAB and government leaders mentioned their long-term plans last year but have kept them carefully unspoken and unexplained ever since and no one else discussed them either. Hence for the second time since 2005 when the strategy was first revealed, no one explained to their constituents that they were not just voting for friendly faces and welcome services.
The District Councils have become the building blocks of a mainland-style people’s congress system. This is based on direct elections at the local level but indirectly-elected communist party-controlled elections to fill congress seats at all levels above. The arrangement is meant to legitimize the system in the public’s eyes; just as Hong Kong’s one-person one-vote elections are legitimizing the DAB’s growing strength.
Yet the closest anyone came to explaining these implications to voters was a full-page newspaper ad sponsored by five pro-democracy parties (not including People Power or the LSD) shortly before the election. The ad read simply, “Don’t allow the establishment parties to control the District Councils,” and obviously had no impact whatsoever. Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been based on the dream of a directly-elected government but achieving that goal has been transformed into a long-running political war of attrition and pan-democrats are not winning.