Posted;  Sept. 18, 2012

 

Picking up where this story left off last week (Sept. 13 post), two reasons stand out at first glance for pan-democrats’ failure to do better in the September 9 Legislative Council (Legco) election.   One is the compound effects of their own error-filled campaigns, for which they have no one to blame but themselves; the other is the near flawless performance orchestrated by their pro-Beijing opponents.  The latter’s success story is especially ironic since elections are the stuff of pan-democrats’ dreams and ideals whereas their opponents have taken up the task only out of necessity, as a survival strategy given the Basic Law’s “eventual universal suffrage” mandate that resulted from the pre-1997 Sino-British negotiations.

THE PRO-BEIJING JUGGERNAUT

          This success story has been in the making since pro-Beijing candidates first came out to contest elections in the 1990s, but their achievement in mastering all the tricks of the electioneering trade did not become apparent until the 2004 Legislative Council election when pro-Beijing forces were able to hold back the tide of voters still angry in the aftermath of 2003.   Organization, coordination, and discipline make up the formula that pan-democrats cannot and do not want to emulate because it derives from a unified command structure that violates the values they espouse.   But propelling that formula is a clear sense of mission:  the pro-Beijing camp knows where it’s going and what it wants, namely, “one-country, one-system” full integration for Hong Kong with the mainland by 2047 at the latest.

The aim is pursued in many ways most notably via the cross-border movement of money and people.  Less apparent is the arena of government and politics: from above, with Beijing jealously guarding its power of appointment for all Hong Kong’s leading officials; and from below, via people power and elections.  Pan-democrats mistakenly assume they still have a lock on this basic level because they once did.  But they do no longer and if they can’t get their diverse acts together in time for the next 2015/16 election cycle they seem set to lose their shrinking vote-count majorities as well.

As for their opponents, the pro-Beijing camp not only knows where it’s going but thinks it has learned how to get there as well, by winning as many District Council and Legislative Council seats as possible.  This goal has now been partly achieved with majorities on all 18 District Councils, won through a skillful emphasis on livelihood issues and the a-political provision of social services for target constituencies, plus alliances with conservative neighborhood-level groups and leaders.  The 2010 political reform package was designed to build on this basic foundation of the pro-Beijing camp’s success by using it as a platform for indirect election to the Legislative Council, which is the next target.

Besides all the funding they can possibly use, the resources necessary for this ambitious task are also already in place, beginning with the discipline provided by a still unacknowledged “underground” communist party branch.  Its above-ground electoral wing is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which has grown rapidly in recent years to its present 20,000 members making it by far the largest political party in Hong Kong.  Added to this mass-based political party is a genuine grassroots organization with a history to match dating back to 1949.   This is the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) that claims 300+ affiliated unions with about 300,000 members.   But unlike the existence of the local communist party branch, and the provenance of the 2010 District Council “takeover-from below” political reform strategy, plans for the September 9 election were no secret.

DAB vice-chairman Horace Cheung spelled them out at an open academic forum last spring (Aug. 29 post).  He said they saw in 2008 how the Democratic Party used proportional representation to win more seats with fewer votes than the DAB, which received more votes but won fewer seats.  He also told how the pro-Beijing camp meant to turn the tables by using the same strategy, which is exactly what they did.  The DAB and FTU ran multiple coordinated lists in all five electoral districts, but they did so with care … not randomly on a whim like pro-democracy free-lance candidates are prone to do.  Candidate lists were positioned to maximize gains while minimizing “wasted” excess votes.   Their only miscalculation within Hong Kong’s five election districts was New Territories East where pan-democrats performed better than expected.  In that district two DAB lists won but the FTU list lost and so did an allied candidate whose campaign did its best to hide her DAB associations.

The Geographic Constituencies:  5 districts, 35 seats, 67 lists, 216 candidates

Hong Kong Island: 7 seats
14  lists (pan-dems, 5; pro-establishment, 5; independent, 4)
Kowloon East: 5 seats
9 lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent, 3)
Kowloon West: 5 seats
9 lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent 3)
New Territories East: 9 seats
19 lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment, 6; independent, 5)
New Territories West: 9 seats
16 lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment, 6; independent, 2)

Otherwise, instead of running only one-DAB list per district and hoping the transferred second votes would be enough to win two seats, the DAB ran two or three lists in three of five districts, with one each in two districts.  Its FTU ally picked up the blue collar/clerical vote with one list in each of four districts.  The DAB/FTU mix was so finely balanced that only the one FTU list in New Territories East failed to win a seat.  None won two.

The FTU had actually planned to contest in all five districts but calculated beforehand that its list could not win in Kowloon West without endangering a close ally, incumbent Pricilla Leung Mei-fun.  She was one of the two ostensible independents that Ming Pao Daily “outed” on August 27 and 28 (Sept. 7 post).  Her poll numbers fell sharply in the days following but soon revived.   The second outed contender was Paul Tse Wai-chun in Kowloon East where the pro-Beijing camp rallied to campaign for him on street corners and ensured the even distribution of votes between their lists and his that guaranteed his victory (Wen Wei Po,  Sept. 8, 9).

Besides making the right decisions beforehand based on past voter support and turnout in different districts, the even distribution of votes as Election Day nears has also been honed to an impressive degree.  First are the pre-election tracking polls.  Conventional wisdom has it that the 25% of respondents who regularly refuse to answer are most likely supporters of pro-Beijing candidates.  The idea is not to show their hand so as to keep their opponents guessing and make it harder for them to warn their supporters.

Next is the practice of voting late.  Polls are open all day, Sunday, from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., but some 20% of the total turnout is registered after 6:00 p.m. The significance of this late voting trend was suggested by tea-table gossip among pro-Beijing partisans shortly before Election Day.  Their advice:  wait for a late afternoon phone call and vote afterward, the call being messages circulated from those who are doing the calculating.  By 6:00 p.m. they can estimate who has enough votes and who needs more.

Pan-democrats have long blamed exit-pollsters for passing on this information and, as in past elections, advised voters not to answer their questions.  But pro-Beijing camp volunteers have also long been well organized with their phone numbers and message banks.  These contain the names of thousands on union membership and various service lists.  They can easily monitor their voter base themselves without the surreptitious aid of professional pollsters staked out in key constituencies.

The clearest case of such apparent messaging on September 9 was with the three pro-Beijing candidates among the six lists vying for the new District Council-based super seats.  Ultimately, the three pan-democratic candidates won as did two of the three pro-Beijing candidates.  The final tracking polls had indicated that the three pan-democrats were probably safe and so was pro-Beijing unionist Chan Yuen-han, the FTU’s “queen of votes.”  That left the two DAB candidates, Starry Lee Wai-king and Lau Kong-wah running more or less neck-and neck … until the calls and messages reportedly went out, late-in-the-day, to sacrifice Lau for Lee.  She won: 277,143 to Lau’s 199,732, and she benefited from an unexplained surge of votes even in his New Territories base where pre-Election Day publicity recommended that voters opt for him (Wen Wei Po, Sept. 8).  There might be many reasons for the final decision that might have been made by the pro-Beijing camp’s central command decision-making committee.  Among them is that Starry Lee is younger, outgoing, well-spoken, and provokes far fewer negative reactions among non-loyalists than the older abrasive Lau who is widely disliked.  If a political choice had to be made between these two dedicated loyalists then it would have to be made in her favor.

PAN-DEMOCRATS:  RADICALS, RADICAL MODERATES, MODERATES, AND ALSO-RANS

         Amateurs at the helm are an endearing feature of young democracies; amateurs who refuse to change after opponents turn professional are courting disaster and pan-democrats are now well on their way.  Although they don’t stand alone in this respect, two men stand out as being more responsible than others for pan-democrats’ losses on September 9 and the District Councils debacle last November.  But the immediate consequences of their mistakes are not the only cause for concern.  More important is the failure to acknowledge reasons and explain them to the voting public.  The two men are Albert Ho Chun-yan who has just resigned as chairman of the Democratic Party to accept responsibility, and Raymond Wong Yuk-man, founding father and guiding force of People Power.

 Albert Ho and the Democratic Party.    In terms of immediate consequences, the Democratic Party suffered the worst blows leaving it with only four Geographic Constituency seats.   As for Albert Ho, however, his greatest failure is that he still seems not to understand how and why he led his party to its greatest ever defeat.  Certainly he did not understand, at the time, that his compromise decision on the June 2010 political reform package would lead to any such negative result. On the contrary, when they were debating the package, during the months before, when party elder Szeto Wah was still alive, they all agreed that the lure of 10 more seats added to Legco was worth the compromise.  The 10 new seats, five in the directly-elected Geographic Constituencies and five in the Functional Constituencies, was part of the reform package.  Democratic Party leaders argued that the party could not continue as it was and needed the extra seats to give younger members a chance to contest and win seats.

Probably not until the combined blows of the last two elections did party leaders and followers finally grasp that they were no longer in a position to benefit from the new seats.  Nor did their intellectual and political back-up group, the Universal Suffrage Alliance, do them any favors.  Its members seemed not to appreciate the difference between indirect and direct elections and continued to keep pressing for “universal suffrage” promises when they should have been demanding definitions.  In the end, Beijing did give a promise …  expressed in terms that could just as easily be used to describe the mainland people’s congress system with its “universal suffrage” grassroots direct elections (and indirect elections at all levels above), controlled by the communist party’s organization everywhere from the bottom up.

In fact, the indirect election plan being offered in the Hong Kong government’s original political reform package, with DAB backing, was just such an arrangement:  for indirect election from the directly-elected but DAB-dominated District Councils into Legco.  Officials also acknowledged that the objective was to phase out all the traditional Functional Constituencies and replace them with indirectly elected District Councilors.  When asked why the full implications of the government’s reform package were not being debated and explained to the public, Democratic Party vice-chair Emily Lau Wai-hing drew a complete blank.  In the end, when she and Albert Ho struck their deal for a universal vote to elect the five new District Council functional seats, they did not bother to explain even to other leading members of their own party that only District Councilors would be allowed to contest these seats.  Enter Raymond Wong Yuk-man who took it upon himself to teach Albert Ho a lesson.

Raymond Wong and People Power.     He was not alone.  “Don’t curse the Democratic Party; teach them a lesson at the ballot box,” declared the lead editorial in a leading Chinese-language newspaper the day after the July 1, 2010 anniversary march.  The Democratic Party’s contingent had been vilified by participants and onlookers throughout the march.   That ballot box lesson has just been administered but the convoluted path it took has probably done more to strengthen the pro-Beijing opposition than anything else, which was presumably not Raymond Wong’s intention (despite dark rumors about his “real” motives).

His first step was to break with “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and his League of Social Democrats (LSD) colleagues when they baulked at breaking with the hard-won “coordination mechanism.”   Pan-democrats had finally agreed, in 2003, not to stand against one another just for the fun of it in District Council constituencies where the only beneficiaries would be their pro-Beijing and/or conservative opponents.  This agreement lasted, with difficulty, through two election cycles … until Wong decided to break it for last November’s District Councils election.  He split with the LSD, set up People Power, and parachuted his energetic young followers into constituencies all over town …  with the sole aim of “teaching the Democratic Party a lesson.”

But despite his fury over Albert Ho’s compromise, Wong, too, seemed oblivious to the underlying “mainland-ization” intent of the government’s original reform proposal  …  or why the DAB had been so keen on supporting it.  Had he understood he maybe would not have sent his loud-mouthed apprentice politicians into DAB territory where its constituencies are now solidly based on the provision of neighborhood services and amenities with special focus on seniors.

All his parachuters naturally perished and the DAB’s need to elect suitable territory-wide known names to contest the five new District Councils Functional Constituency seats further motivated its campaigns last November.  DAB/FTU supporters turned out in large numbers, for example, to welcome back Lau Kong-wah and Chan Yuen-han who returned to districts they had once served, in order to qualify for Legco’s new District Council Functional super-seats.  Defeated along with Raymond Wong’s novices in the partisan upsurge they provoked were several big-name democrats as well.  That left them with few choices of their own to contest the five new seats.

Then, still not having learned his lesson or seeing no lesson to learn, Raymond Wong’s People Power ran candidates in all five Legco election districts on September 9. These included two where their chances of doing harm to like-minded others were greater than their chances of winning.  His strategy cost pan-democrats one seat in Kowloon East, and arguably another on Hong Kong Island as well.   Wong’s initial vow not to contest the new District Council super-seat category came to nothing since he had no candidates to run.  His subsequent call to cast blank ballots for those seats had little impact.

Winners and Losers.   Results in the five Geographic Constituencies nevertheless illustrate the full extent of the Democratic Party’s defeat.  Except for its four candidates who won (down from seven in 2008), all other pan-democratic victors had opposed Albert Ho’s 2010 compromise decision.  These like-minded others are now being differentiated as “radicals” (People Power and League of Social Democrats) and “radical moderates” (everyone else).

The Democratic Party’s decline was especially apparent in New Territories East where one of its legislators, Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, quit the party immediately in June 2010. He did not stand again but campaigned actively for like-minded non-Democratic Party candidates in the district and elsewhere.  Virtually the entire New Territories East branch of the party also quit in 2010 and set up their own group, the New Democratic Alliance or NeoDemocrats.  Its leader, Gary Fan Kwok-wai, won a seat in the district.  So did a member of the newly established Labor Party, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung.  And so did People Power candidate Raymond Chan Chi-chuen who will be Hong Kong’s first openly gay legislator.

New Territories East is also home to the Civic Party’s Ronny Tong and the Democratic Party’s Emily Lau, plus Hong Kong’s original radical, “Long Hair” Leung Kowk-hung, who won more votes than anyone else in the district:  48,295.  Emily Lau headed one of three Democratic Party lists in this district.  Only she won a seat and the party’s two lists in neighboring New Territories West were also defeated.

Overall among pan-democrats, the “radical moderate” of moderately radical Civic Party emerged the biggest winner together with its Professional Commons ally.  The pro-Beijing media tried to revive issues from last November’s District Councils election (Dec. 5, 2011 post), but no one paid much attention. Margaret Ng successfully transferred her legal Functional Constituency seat to a safe pair of Civic Party hands.  His competitor, who had boasted of collecting 800 nominating signatures from lawyers in the constituency, won 1,970 votes to Dennis Kwok’s 2,528.

In the Geographic Constituencies, the Civic Party won a seat in each of the five districts but these victories were marred by two bad miscalculations that did not help its candidates and did real damage to others.  These miscalculations followed from the risky strategy of trying to win two seats for the price of one.  It worked in 2008 when the popular Audrey Eu was listed second with the aim of giving new-comer Tanya Chan a boost.  In 2008, both women won.  This time both lost despite raising an 11th hour emergency distress signal to get out the vote.  Supporters did respond and their two lists received 70,000 votes each on Hong Kong Island and in New Territories West … not enough for a second seat in either case but way more than enough for one, which contributed to the poor pan-democratic seat-count in both constituencies.  Had there been a DAB-style central command guiding hand, that 11th hour distress signal would never have been sent.

The strategy nevertheless did succeed in propelling two newcomers into Legco, which is an ongoing Civic Party aim.  The new names are college professor Kenneth Chan Ka-lok and Kwok Ka-ki.  Dr. Kwok is a past medical Functional Constituency legislator who joined the Civic Party two years ago in a gesture of support for its strong stand on political reform.

Also on Hong KongIsland, Labor Party vice-chair, Cyd Ho, again came from behind and retained her seat.  But pan-democrats were hard hit in the constituency (winning three seats of seven total), not only by the Civic Party’s miscalculation but also by the intrusion of too many candidates.  Perennial candidate Dr. Lo Wing-lok ran a lackluster independent pro-democracy campaign that accounted for 17,000 votes.  Both People Power and LSD also ran candidates and together siphoned off another 20,000 pro-democracy votes.

To the extent that pro-establishment candidates venture outside their natural Functional Constituency habitat and try to contest direct elections, they exhibit the same fractious tendencies as pan-democrats.  Only the communist party, it seems, has the organization and discipline necessary to run efficient winning election campaigns in Hong Kong!

LEGCO STALEMATE      

For all that effort, the balance in the new council (27 pan-democrats of 70 total) will be much like the last (24 of 60 total), and the overall end result will likely be just as dysfunctional if not more so.  Pan-democrats retained their so-called veto-proof  one-third minority, for whatever it’s worth.  But their opponents are also far from united  …  except when it comes to opposing pan-democrats’ political initiatives.  On labor and livelihood issues, pro-Beijing unionists are more likely to vote with pro-democracy labor legislators than with others in the combined pro-Beijing/pro-establishment camp where middle class and big business interests prevail.

It is also not quite the whole truth to dismiss Legco as a powerless platform for debate and protest within an executive-led system.  Councilors cannot table bills and motions on their own and if they do receive permission, the two-house voting mechanism kicks in.  This means a majority of BOTH Functional Constituency AND Geographic Constituency legislators, VOTING SEPARATELY, are needed for passage.  The mechanism has worked to defeat virtually all pro-democracy political initiatives.

Nevertheless, legislative approval is needed for all government bills, which can be subjected to indefinite delays while debates and committee-stage negotiations continue.  People Power’s recent filibustering performance is only the most extreme example of Legco’s nuisance value in the administration’s eyes.  But that value can also be useful in promoting pro-democracy causes.  Hence there is a legislative cost to pay for pan-democrats’ amateur electioneering habits.  DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung explained.

He rubbed salt in the wounds during a post-election victory lap through his New Territories West constituency where pan-democrats’ mismanaged campaigns cost them seats. Tam said he plans to table a motion that would ban filibustering in the next Legco.  All he needs is one more vote in his half of the chamber where pan-democrats will occupy 18 seats and pro-Beijing/pro-establishment legislators 17 (see table, Sept. 13 post).   If pan-democrats cared a little more about their camp as a whole and a little less about its individual parts, they could have won four more seats to use in blocking such efforts:  two in Tam’s New Territories West constituency, plus one in Kowloon East, and another on Hong Kong Island.

People Power’s Albert Chan Wai-yip led the filibustering effort last spring and his reply helps illustate why pan-democrats are now on the electoral defensive in competition with DAB/FTU loyalists for votes and seats.  He said it didn’t matter:  if filibustering was banned  they would find other ways of disrupting Legco proceedings.  He doesn’t care that they didn’t win as many seats as they could have.  And the Democratic Party seems only to care about itself.  Party leaders are saying that they only lost because they fielded too many candidates, which was of course the main reason party leaders agreed to the 2010 compromise in the first place  …  to give more members the experience of electioneering regardless of the consequences.

The pro-Beijing camp has a mission and is using elections as a means to that end.  For pan-democrats, contesting elections is the mission and the end.  Win or lose all candidates are already there.  The persistence of this amateur ideal is nevertheless based on a serious miscalculation:  it assumes that “one-country, two-systems” is a permanent condition.  Loyalists know it is not.

For their part, pan-democrats also understand that the aim is full integration by 2047.  But without thinking things through too carefuly, they have just assumed that their “Hong Kong values” would be well entrenched by then and able to proceed with them across the 2047 finish line.

The government’s new compulsory political education course for all school children has provided a wake-up call and the September 9 election maybe, for some, provided another.   Pro-democracy voters have, in any case, now delivered their verdict and among their choices all but the Democratic Party’s legislators are politicians who seem likely to stand up and stay standing as pressures grow.  Specifically, they have all identified the need to block political education and Article 23 national political security legislation as their bottom line in safeguarding Hong Kong’s essential core-value freedoms of political expression.  But lucky for Hong Kongers who care about such things that they have learned the value of feet-on-the-ground as a fall-back line of defense  …  for use when their politicians and  legislators fail to protect them.

suzpepper@gmail.com

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