Posted:  Jan. 16, 2012

 

Strangely enough given the make-up of the Election Committee tasked with endorsing the appointment of  Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive, candidates pledged to support a pro-democracy candidate actually did better in the December 11th Election Committee Sub-sector Election than those who had declared for the two leading pro-establishment candidates.    During the first week of December, the highest preference rating received by the main pro-democracy candidate, Albert Ho Chun-yan (He Junren 何俊 仁) of the Democratic Party, was 6 %.  This was a Hong Kong University poll that gave the two establishment contenders, Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang, 34.7% and 18%, respectively.  Albert Ho also has no chance of victory on Election Day, March 25, whereas Tang was regarded as the front-runner even though Leung was topping all the candidate popularity polls (Jan. 4, 2012 post).   The approximate number of pledged candidates who won:   50 for CY Leung; 203 for Henry Tang; 205 for a democrat.

THE COMMITTEE

To sort out these contradictions, it is necessary to focus on the convoluted process of anointing Beijing’s choice for Chief Executive, and to do that it is necessary to focus on the composition of the 1,200-member committee.  Unfortunately, in order to understand the Election Committee it is also necessary to think in terms of the 28 Functional Constituencies that elect half the Legislative Council.  These are based on occupational categories and this electorate is a mix of corporate representatives and employees.  Altogether, they include 200,000+ voters.  To form the Election Committee, the 28 Functional Constituencies are rearranged a bit to become 32 of its sub-sectors.  These are divided into three main sectors, plus a fourth filled with political representatives.  Each sector has 300 members:

EC Sectors                                            No. of Members

First:  Business, industry                       300

Second:  Professions                                300

Third:  Labor, etc.                                     300

Fourth:  Political                                        300

All the economic heavy weights are concentrated in Sector One.  Professional categories are represented in Sector Two.    Sector Three is a mix of “grassroots” and others:  labor unions, farmers, fishermen, social welfare, representatives of all the main religions, sports, performing arts, publishing.   Sector Four contains political representatives of many kinds including all 60 Legislative Councilors and a selection of district councilors.   Pro-Beijing loyalists account for almost a third of this sector.  They are represented by Hong Kong’s 36 delegates to the National People’s Congress and 55 of Hong Kong’s representatives on the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

DEMOCRATS TRY THEIR LUCK

After much argument among all the parties and groups, most democrats decided to support a candidate for Chief Executive, as they did five years ago, even though the committee is so weighted with conservatives and loyalists that everyone knows a democrat cannot win.  One opinion poll asked about the chances and respondents all replied “zero.”  Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho volunteered months ago to be the candidate (for reasons of the DP’s own, to be sure) but most others agreed that his candidacy could promote their common cause by providing another opportunity for public debate.

Some disagreed.  DP vice-chair Emily Lau has maintained her long-held view that to participate in such a “small circle” election is to acknowledge its legitimacy.  The new Labor Party, led by veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, holds the same view and the party’s two Legislative Councilors will abstain from the March 25 vote.  But among pan-democrats, only the most radical groups, People Power and League of Social Democrats, are actively agitating against participation for that reason (and also doubtless because they are still smarting from their failed attempt via last November’s District Councils election to punish the Albert Ho’s party for its sins).

Even if everyone was on board, however, sponsoring a pro-democracy Chief Executive candidate in an environment deliberately designed to discourage such a project  is not easy.   The basic bar is the need for 150 Election Committee members willing to serve as nominators.  So the first step was to find a sufficient number of people, among the 200,000+ electorate, willing to stand as pro-democracy candidates for a place on the 1,200-member committee.  Among all the 38 sub-sector constituencies (including the six in Sector Four), only a few contain people likely to vote for Election Committee candidates who are willing to pledge, openly in advance, to nominate a pro-democracy Chief Executive candidate.

Leading Democratic Party member Dr. Law Chi-kwong inadvertently illustrated the problem a month after the sub-sector election when an e-mail surfaced that he sent last summer.  He was supposed to have been mobilizing candidates for the social welfare sub-sector but instead warned his friends about the “inconvenience” they were likely to encounter if they won and did not support Beijing favorite Henry Tang (Ming Pao Daily, Jan. 11, 2012).  Law was then working with Tang on a charity project and his friends did not run.

The places to look for such potential supporters are well-known since they correspond to the few Functional Constituencies that usually vote for pro-democracy Legislative Council candidates.  Those who declared themselves ahead of the December 11th Election Committee election were concentrated mainly in Sector Two and Sector Three sub-sectors:  accounting, architecture, education, engineering, higher education, information technology, legal, medical, health services, social welfare.

Pan-democrats concentrated on these sub-sectors, reminding friends and colleagues to meet all the voter registration and nomination deadlines.  As the latter neared in November, campaign workers began beating the bushes urging more potential candidates to step forward after head-counters came up short of the 150 needed to guarantee one Chief Executive nomination.  Charles Mok of Professional Commons, a Civic Party ally, and the DP’s Yeung Sum were lead coordinators of this pre-election politicking.

Most democratic candidates announced themselves as members of slates or group tickets, reflecting another peculiarity of this election.  Every individual voter among the 200,000+ could vote for as many candidates as there were seats allocated on the Election Committee to his/her sub-sector.  It was not required but for those wishing to exercise their right in full, remembering so many candidates could be a problem since only their names (no photos allowed) were printed randomly on ballot papers minus any distinguishing marks or reference to partisan affiliations.  All voters were advised to bring along their own “sample ballot” crib sheets for reference.  Some slates helped out by printing their own in the form of paid newspaper advertisements.   With its 60 seats, the social welfare sub-sector presented the greatest challenge, which was nothing compared to the job of vote-counting afterward.

RESULTS

The turnout  —  27.5% of 237,000 registered voters  —  was about the same as usual.  Altogether 766 seats in 24 sub-sectors were contested by 1,300 candidates.   But to everyone’s surprise including their own, given the lackluster turnout, democrats could count 205 of their candidates among those elected to sit on the committee.  The margin above 150 was more than enough for safety’s sake  —   in case some change their minds about signing  for a democrat when nomination time comes in February.  All were from the anticipated sub-sectors.

Pan-democrats’ success was one surprise.   Another was how well the results reflected all the reports from unattributed Beijing and Hong Kong establishment “sources” about Henry Tang being their preferred candidate, despite CY Leung’s popularity.  He tallied only about 50 backers compared to Tang’s 203.  The sub-sectors most solidly in Tang’s camp also indicate the extent of his support here:   commerce, industry, textiles/garments, wholesale/retail, tourism, catering, performing arts.  Leung’s greatest strength was in his own architectural/surveying constituency, plus import/export, religion, and a scattering of others.  Most committee members have not yet declared their preferences.

Ironically, pan-democrats were trying to play the “small circle” game they deplore and accomplished what they needed to do.   In contrast, Leung has had no Election Committee experience and it showed.  He seems to have ignored the tedious task of mobilizing advance support within the sub-sector constituencies.  Instead, he focused on the new popular acceptability criterion and campaigned by speaking out with more to say on current issues than any of the other candidates.  Two others, Rita Fan and Regina Ip, have recently dropped out of the race.  Still, he may have won some new friends.  There has been talk among democrats on the Election Committee about whether they should “lend” their surplus support (above the 150 signatures Albert Ho needs) to Leung so that he, too, can meet the 150-signature threshold.   Some among the younger generation want to help Leung who, unlike Henry Tang, at least represents the possibility of something different.

A PRIMARY ELECTION ALL THEIR OWN

          Not so fast, say their elders who remember Leung in the 1990s (Jan. 4 post).  Best wait before jumping on that band wagon until we hear what he has to say about democratic institution-building and the Basic Law’s Article 23 mandate for national political security legislation.  They are  setting the stage for Albert Ho and his main declared reason for joining the race.  Without our open challenge, he says, candidates Tang and Leung will continue to ignore us and carry on as they have so far with their non-committal answers to our political questions.

Albert Ho is sounding like he, too, has learned some lessons.   Given all the flak aimed at him and his party during the past two years  —  for refusing to participate in the 2010 universal suffrage referendum campaign; for compromising on the 2010 political reform package; and now for participating in the Election Committee exercise  —   Albert Ho concluded that he needed something more substantial than 205 small-circle backers to underpin his candidacy.   He and his party therefore decided, with the help of some younger activists, to hold a virtual referendum in the form of a primary election.

Besides helping to legitimize his nomination, there were many anticipated benefits.  The general public could participate and if numbers were great enough the establishment candidates would feel obliged to accept his challenge for open debate.  The exercise could also serve as a dress rehearsal for the next Chief Executive election in 2017 when Beijing has promised that everyone might be allowed to vote.  Specifically, the promoters are trying to establish some precedents and procedures ahead of 2017.  The aim is to have alternatives already tried and tested in order to prevent the current Election Committee from becoming the sole nominator of  pre-determined candidates, which is the direction Beijing’s promise now seems to be taking.

Perhaps recalling its own lonely struggle with the 2010 referendum campaign, the Civic Party decided against putting forward a candidate to compete with Albert Ho.  But veteran moderate democrat Frederick Fung Kin-kee (Feng Jianji 馮檢基 ) stepped forward to save the day and round out the experiment, which was actually quite ambitious.  It entailed:  two televised debates between Ho and Fung on January 3 and 7; an opinion poll commissioned by the sponsors but conducted by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program between January 3 and 6, asking respondents which candidate they preferred; and finally, an online primary election allowing all Hong Kong residents to chose one or the other on January 8.

If nothing else, the debates illustrated another almost-forgotten cleavage within the pro-democracy camp itself  —   between Frederick Fung’s extreme moderation and that of the Democratic Party.  In this line-up, Albert Ho played the radical with his dramatic declaration of “war” against the “hegemony” of Hong Kong’s mega-property developers who are blamed for pushing housing prices out of middle class reach.  Fung said such talk would only provoke more social conflict and hatred of the rich.  He advocated instead a policy of encouraging smaller developers to enter the market and a fund to promote innovative industries.  On political reform, too, Albert Ho was far more forceful, calling for abolition of the Legislative Council’s Functional Constituency seats and for resolving the question of Article 23 legislation.

HKU’s opinion poll was the least successful part of the exercise.  Among 1,000 respondents, 271 preferred Albert Ho and 181 Frederick Fung, but over half abstained and there were no follow-up questions that might have explained why.  The January 8th primary, on the other hand, exceeded expectations with its improvised cardboard-box polling booths, open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 70 computers set up all around town outside the busiest subway stations.  Voters had to punch in their Hong Kong ID card numbers to prove they were residents and not voting twice.  But despite some radical heckling, 34,000 people turned out while only 20,000 had been expected.  The weather obliged and everything went off without too many glitches thanks to Charles Mok and his IT friends.  The result:  22,148 votes for Albert Ho; 10,791 votes for Frederick Fung; 993 abstentions.

Despite some smirking and simmering from the usual pro-Beijing sources, pan-democrats have so far done what they set out to do with a minimum of conflict and controversy and no major blasts from on high.    But the campaign is only half over.  Next comes February and then March.  Will 150 Election Committee members actually sign on the doted line to confirm Ho’s candidacy?  If they do, will the establishment candidates respond as he hopes and accept his challenge for a public debate?   And if they do, will he stand by his January debating points or equivocate, as he did before, in the face of official intransigence and party pressures to minimize  “inconvenience.”

Between now and then, however, the spotlight will refocus on Leung Chun-ying.  Of all the awkward choices that have to be made, his will be the most difficult as he tries to find his way clear of the obstacles his unconventional campaign has created.  Leung’s greatest danger now is the interest among democrats and the feelers his own campaign sent out last month for their help in meeting the nomination threshold.  If he openly courts them, his standing with Beijing and the local establishment is probably doomed.  But the potential for support from democrats will be nipped in the bud should he feel the need to regain his loyalist-conservative footing by provoking them.  It follows that if Leung Chun-ying can maneuver through this minefield with his Hong Kong candidacy and Beijing credentials intact, then maybe he really is the right man for the top job.

suzpepper@gmail.com

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