Posted: Nov. 8, 2012
For all of us onlookers who can’t resist saying pan-democrats should unite if they want to stop disappointing supporters by wasting their votes (Oct. 29 post), last Sunday’s by-election only produced more of the same. The scene was set for another pan-democratic defeat and pro-Beijing victory as soon as the by-election was announced a few weeks ago. Far from having learned any lessons as onlookers hoped, pan-democrats looked like they were losing track of the plot altogether.
At stake was the On Tai [鞍泰] Constituency seat, one of 36 that make up the Shatin [沙田] District Council, which is one of the 18 such local councils covering the entire Hong Kong Special Administrative Region territory. The district, located just north of urban Kowloon, was open farmland 30 years ago but is now filled with high-rise mostly middle class apartment blocks for as far as the eye can see. On Tai Constituency has a total of 11,186 registered voters and was represented by Yeung Cheung-li of the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB.
Yeung won with 2,417 votes in the general District Councils election last November. His competitors were a Democratic Party candidate (who received 1,499 votes) and a People Power/Frontier candidate (457 votes). This was one of the constituencies where People Power parachuted in to “teach the Democratic Party a lesson” for its 2010 compromise on political reform.
The Shatin District Council is a stronghold of the DAB and one of its satellites, Civil Force. The latter was founded by Lau Kong-wah years ago when he was beginning his transition from the democratic camp where his political life began. He is currently a DAB vice-chairman and a directly-elected member of the Shatin District Council. Among its 36 elected members (there are still a few who are appointed), 27 are pro-Beijing or pro-establishment conservatives; 9 are pan-democrats.
The On Tai Constituency seat fell vacant when Yeung Cheung-li encountered business difficulties and declared bankruptcy, which disqualified him from continuing to serve as a councilor. Pan-democrats were still licking their wounds after serious territory-wide setbacks in the District Councils election last November (Nov. 14, 2011 post) and the Legislative Council election on September 9 (Sept. 13, 2012 post). The District Councils are already so heavily dominated by their opponents that pan-democratic parachuters probably did little damage to each other, as in this constituency, although not for want of trying. Most recently on September 9, however, the costs (of mutual competition within a field where they were all also competing against another single adversary) were clear. But no sooner had these results been registered than the sequence began again.
The On Tai by-election was announced in September and by October 4 when the nomination period closed, five hopefuls had qualified as candidates: two independents; two pan-democrats; and one from the DAB. No need to wait for Election Day on November 4 to know who won. The results:
On Tai Constituency By-election, Nov. 2012
affiliation candidate votes received
|Democratic Party||Donna Yau||1,443|
Obviously, the votes were there had pan-democrats cared enough to try for a win. Instead they treated it as yet another opportunity to score points against each other and build individual voter pools for use in the next election. This is the excuse most commonly given when the parties are asked their reasons: they want to give their young members experience in contesting elections and building loyal constituencies for future use. Winning now doesn’t matter, or so they keep insisting. The assumption is that, as the Young Democrats (from the Democratic Party) like to say, “We have time.” The questions they have yet to address are how much time, to use for what purpose? Where do they think they’re headed and how do they plan to get there?
TIME FOR WHAT?
Vague statements about eventual universal suffrage are no longer enough since the pro-Beijing opposition is speaking the same language. Universal suffrage is now everyone’s goal. The difference is that pro-Beijing partisans have a model designed to reward their dominance in the District Councils. The official 2005-2010 political reform plan … that has not been laid to rest … would have begun introducing a mainland-style People Congress system of universal suffrage. The idea was for one-person-one-vote universal suffrage elections at the grassroots level, via the small District Council constituencies, and indirect elections from the DAB-dominated District Councils into the Legislative Council level above.
Pan-democrats have yet to articulate the distinction between that proposal and anything different that they might want to work toward. The next phase of political reform will be debated during the new 2012-2016 legislative term. In fact, pan-democrats have yet to articulate any clear understanding of the difference between an indirect election, like that advanced in the official 2005-2010 plan, and the direct elections they presumably want. Meanwhile, they busy themselves building their individual grassroots voter bases and tying themselves in knots … with everyone accusing everyone of working for their common pro-Beijing “communist” opponents by helping them win elections. Strictly speaking, of course, the accusation is correct: the more pan-democratic candidates contest a single seat, along with only one pro-Beijing contender, the more likely the latter is to win.
MOLES IN OUR MIDST
Consequently, with infighting among pan-democrats so pervasive, the accusation is now common among them … and pro-Beijing partisans are laughing all the way to the ballot box. They also can’t resist some mischief-making of their own like spreading the rumor themselves and underscoring it by trying (sometimes successfully) to contribute to the campaign coffers of pan-democratic candidates.
The On Tai Constituency is a case in point … not about campaign contributions but about rumors, accusations, and some likely mischief-making on someone’s part although exactly who is not yet clear. Total turnouts in November 2011 and last Sunday were almost identical: 4,373 voters cast ballots a year ago, compared to 4,396 voters last Sunday. Probably it is safe to assume that these are the same people (although there are no polls to prove it as far as I know). But if so, they voted very differently. Last year, DAB candidate Yeung won with 2,417 votes. Last Sunday, DAB candidate Chiu won but with only 1,488 votes.
In contrast, the two pro-democracy candidates a year ago (Democratic Party and People Power) together won 1,956 votes. Last Sunday, the Democratic Party and Neo-Democrats candidates together won 2,772 votes. An obvious conclusion (which Democratic Party supporters are drawing) is that a thousand 2011 DAB votes were transferred to Neo-Democrats last Sunday since the Democratic Party candidate won the same amount of votes in both elections. The suspicion more specifically is that the votes were transferred to the Neo-Democrats candidate, with malice of forethought, to punish the Democratic Party. Why Neo-Democrats would want to punish the Democratic Party is clear; why DAB supporters would want to help them do it is not. On the contrary, other democrats have accused the Democratic Party of benefiting from collusion with pro-Beijing forces in the September 9 Legislative Council election!
HOWEVER, back in On Tai Constituency, one of the independents, So Tat-leung who received only 53 votes on November 4, is the same So Tat-leung who ran as the People Power/Frontier candidate a year ago when he received 457 votes. People Power, the remnants of Emily Lau’s old Frontier group, and Neo-Democrats are of like mind so his 400 fewer votes were likely given to Neo-Democrats Chan. But Chan would still have needed close to 800 votes from somewhere … and DAB candidate Chiu did win with 1,000 fewer votes than his predecessor a year ago, despite a strong campaign team for Chiu that included ex-councilor Yeung.
On Tai Constituency Election, Nov. 2011
affiliation candidate votes received
|Democratic Party||Chow Wai-tung||1,499|
|People Power/Frontier||So Tat-leung||457|
One final point to note concerning the On Tai by-election is why Neo-Democrats would want to punish the Democratic Party. There is no love lost between them because today’s Neo-Democrats or New Democratic Alliance were the mainstay of the Democratic Party’s New Territories East branch until 2010 when the group decided to quit the party over chairman Albert Ho’s 2010 decision to compromise with the government and Beijing on political reform. Neo-Democrats’ leader Gary Fan has just won a Legislative Council seat while Democratic Party candidates in the New Territories took a beating from pan-democrats who, like Neo-Democrats, opposed the 2010 political reform plan. Additionally, the difficulties in the Democratic Party’s New Territories East branch date back much further since there were accusations in years past and suspicions about some unreported mainland connections of individual branch members. The most recent accusation doubtless originates in those old suspicions.
They only began to resurface, however, after nominations opened for the On Tai by-election. Neo-Democrats announced their intentions first, in mid-September (Ming Pao Daily, Sept. 16). The Democratic Party initially issued a statement saying all was well as far as it was concerned (email@example.com, press release, Sept. 25). But by then quibbling was already underway over Neo-Democrats’ failure to liaise or coordinate (Wen Wei Po, Sept. 26). Supporters on each side challenged the other to drop out. Big name pan-democrats in the district campaigned, separately, for both candidates … and so it went until both were defeated, whereupon Democratic Party supporters accused Neo-Democrats of colluding with the DAB winner (Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 6).
Why those thousand votes seemed to migrate across the main pro-Beijing/pro-democracy divide remains unclear. If there really was so great a shift of the same votes, from one side to the other, it would be highly unusual. DAB voters especially are known for their unshakeable loyalty. But beyond that unexplained anomaly, the by-election illustrates in a nutshell the demoralization that is stifling Hong Kong’s pro-democracy political reform movement.
Pan-democrats have been wandering in the wilderness for so long without any prospect of success that they seem to have lost sight of where they originally intended to go. It has become easier to call one another bad communist names and fight factional battles among themselves than address the real challenges that are now moving beyond their reach. Meanwhile, the electorate is being left to figure things out for itself. No one among its old pro-democracy mainstays and heroes seems willing to think strategically, or explain the DAB’s long-term evolutionary direction, or tell voters that each small District Council constituency has become part of the DAB’s grand mainland-style institution-building project.