Posted: Nov. 10, 2015
During the months leading up to last year’s Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage elections, one of its most ardent critics was Robert Chow Yung 【周融】. As he went around town with his anti-Occupy message, one of his favorite tag lines was a warning: if activists didn’t heed his advice and abandon their perverse plan, he would teach them a lesson they were unlikely to forget.
He promised to mobilize public opinion, organize a voter registration drive that would add a million of Hong Kong’s eligible but unregistered citizens to the rolls, and bury pro-democracy Occupy sympathizers at the next election!
The next election is now upon us. Voters will go to the polls on November 22 to fill the seats that make up Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils. The seats are 431 in number or one to represent each of 431 small constituencies; 935 candidates are vying for the honor.
Robert Chow has kept a low profile during the past post-Occupy year. No sign of him delving into the tedious tasks of grassroots electioneering. But his words were less prophetic than basic-level common sense. This is because basic-level electioneering … mobilizing constituents, registering voters, and getting its people to the polls … is what the main organized opponents of Occupy do best.
They also do it better than anyone else. And anti-Occupy is their campaign theme. It tells voters they have a two-in-one opportunity: they can elect candidates who best serve community needs, and defeat those others who disrupted city life for 79 days … all at the same time!
THE DISTRICT COUNCILS
This territory-wide network of elected bodies dates back to the 1980s when they were called District Boards and only partially elected. They superseded the two Urban and Regional Councils that were also partially elected but with a narrow restricted franchise. Only after the British realized they would have to leave come 1997, did they agree to the long-debated much-feared step of universal suffrage.
In his rush to make up for lost time, the last British governor abolished all the appointed District Board seats including the 27 ex officio seats reserved for rural leaders on the suburban New Territories councils. But as soon as he left, the new sovereign reinstated appointed seats … in a gradually shrinking number. They were reduced from 129 in the 2000-03 councils (among 519 members total), to 95 (among 507 total) in the present councils. The boards were renamed councils in 1999.
The post-1997 Home Affairs Department played “safe” with its appointees, none of whom ever came from the pro-democracy end of Hong Kong’s political spectrum. Maybe the reason the practice is finally being phased out is that the District Councils are now firmly in safe pro-government hands. This will be the first time all District Council seats have been filled by a general universal suffrage election since 1997 … except for the 27 ex officio rural leaders’ seats, which have not been abolished.
The safe pro-government hands are those that Robert Chow knew could be relied upon to promote the strategy he anticipated. They also did the mobilizing and organizing that produced his big anti-Occupy march just before the street blockades began (Aug. 18, 2014 post). In the lead is Hong Kong’s largest richest political party … so loyal in all respects that it can be regarded as the electoral wing of Hong Kong’s still not officially acknowledged underground communist party branch.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) was organized in the early 1990s. Since then it has grown from a group of reluctant “traditional leftists” or “patriots,” as they liked to call themselves, into a party with 20,000 members who have taken to electioneering like ducks to water. Their equally loyal ally is the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), Hong Kong’s oldest and biggest labor organization with affiliated unions that claim several hundred thousand members.
Especially at the District Council level, pan-democrats can no longer compete with the combined strength of the pro-Beijing election machine. In the last, 2011, District Council poll, all pan-democrats combined fielded some 336 candidates with only 93 winners. The DAB/FTU and their pro-establishment allies sponsored 592 candidates, with 319 winners (Nov. 14, 2011 post). Democrats won a bare majority on only one council but the government appointees then reversed the balance.
GRASSROOTS POWER BASES
The district organizations were supposed to be advisory bodies only, devoted to neighborhood community issues and services. They were not, said Article 97 of Hong Kong’s new Basic Law, “organs of political power.“ But during the years since 1997, the councils have acquired additional reasons for their existence … like being used as cheerleaders to promote government policies whether constituents like them or not. Last year, all 18 councils issued statements of fulsome support for the government’s election reform proposal that provoked the Occupy protest and was ultimately vetoed by pro-democracy legislators.
More important are the institutional changes that have been introduced via the government’s ongoing electoral reform proposals. The most potentially significant was the government’s failed attempt in 2005, and then again in 2010, to allow five District Councilors to be elected, indirectly, into the Legislative Council. Both DAB and government leaders said in passing that the aim of promoting the plan, if it proved successful, was to substitute these indirectly elected Legislative Councilors for the controversial occupation-linked Functional Constituencies that make up half the Legislative Council.
This was the source of then Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho’s ill-fated compromise. Negotiating on behalf of pan-democrats, he accepted the proposal albeit on one condition: the five legislators must be elected by all voters on a universal suffrage basis. But he agreed to the government’s terms whereby only District Councilors could nominate and be nominated for what were dubbed the “super seats” (because everyone could vote for them from a single territory-wide constituency).
Added to the one seat that District Councilors have always been allowed to fill by themselves, that allows six Legislative Council seats to be occupied by the District Councilors who will be elected on November 22.
Reinforcing this institutional upgrade in the councils’ power are the very real benefits their members are providing at the neighborhood level. This in turn derives from the range of services that the well-funded DAB and FTU councilors can offer. With paid full-time staffers in every district, helpful and eager to serve, they have become, in effect, extensions of the government’s social service network putting down roots in every district.
The campaign materials currently being handed out on street corners all over town tell the story of comparative advantage: well-printed pamphlets recording the full range of community work already done and with promises of more to come, versus one-page fliers from hopeful competitors with good intentions and little else to recommend them.
Robert Chow estimated, correctly, that Hong Kong has about 5.5 million people eligible to vote. Only 3.5 million were actually registered in 2014 and only about half of those registered typically turned out for District Council elections. But his threat to register a million more by 2015 didn’t quite work out, despite the best efforts of DAB and FTU volunteers. As registration deadlines loomed last summer, councilors and campaign worekrs were out on street corners as usual with voter registration forms.
Pan-democrats, on the other hand, are always thin on the ground at this stage, as they were last summer. Instead of concentrating on registering new voters, they have taken to ferreting out anomalies in the rolls after registration. This effort began after over a thousand cases came to light in 2011.
That was the year pro-democracy candidates suffered their biggest ever losses, thanks to a disastrous election strategy. But not a single contest was invalidated as a result of the investigations and prosecutions that followed. These resulted in only one by-election following the 2011 poll and that was for misuse of campaign materials.
The effort this year to look for mis-registered electors and their planted votes seems likely to have the same result. A few mistakes also gave their opponents a chance to produce blaring headlines about how pan-democrats were working to deprive people of their right to vote by challenging the validity of valid registrations.
In any case, the number of voters on the final 2015 register: 3,693,942. The number in 2011: 3,560,535. The number in 2014: 3,507,786.* A major effort was made to tidy up the rolls after the 2011 controversies, which accounts for the lower 2014 number.
Robert Chow may have the last laugh though because most of the newly registered are from the oldest age groups. As it happens, seniors are the most in need and they are the main beneficiaries of the DAB/FTU social service network. And here, as elsewhere, they are also the most likely to turn out on Election Day.
South China Morning Post reporters have done the most digging in this respect. According to their calculations, based on government statistics, 63% of the newly registered voters are aged 65 or above. Old people’s nursing homes were a focus of various efforts to sign up new voters and pro-democracy critics are questioning the validity of such registrations.
But what of the younger generation that led and provided the main source of energy for Occupy? Alas, the voter registration records provide no comfort. SCMP fact-checkers found an increase of only 5% for the 18-20 age group. The 21-25 age group was worse: up only 4% (SCMP, Sept. 7).
After Occupy, voter registration and the District Councils election were among the items on activists’ to-do list … reflecting their determination to keep the spirit of the Yellow Umbrella movement alive after its street blockades ended. But if the voter registration records are any indication, at least one idea on that list has failed miserably. The strongest opposition to Occupy was among the older generation and they seem set to dominate voter turnout on November 22. …
(Next: The Candidates and Some Races to Watch)
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on November 10, 2015.