Hong Kong’s High Stakes Election: New Candidates, Old Temptations

Hong Kong’s High Stakes Election: New Candidates, Old Temptations
photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip/達志影像

What you need to know

Facing a well-organized pro-Beijing adversary who never runs for any reason other than to win, Hong Kong’s new political candidates look set to make the same mistakes as their predecessors from the pro-democracy movement.

So great an impact has the younger generation had on political thinking since the 2014 Umbrella-Occupy protest movement that “young” has become the watchword for everyone ahead of Hong Kong’s Sept. 4 Legislative Council election. Even the “old” political parties, including conservative pro-establishment, pro-Beijing, and pan-democrats are all competing to show off the fresh young faces being added to candidate lists.

It hasn’t always been so. Gloom hovered over Hong Kong’s democracy movement for most of the first year after police cleared the last of the Occupy street barricades in December 2014. Everyone had spent most of the time castigating themselves for their failures – until a few timid souls ventured out to test the waters during last November’s District Councils election. Consequences are two-fold.

Positives and negatives

The political soul-searching was to positive effect. It led to a new realization, finally, that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans and Beijing officials had been on different wave lengths – talking past each other, about different things, from the start. Universal suffrage comes in many kinds. The two that matter most here and now are mainland-style communist-party-managed versus something approximating open, free, and fair. Now at least both sides know what they are talking about as they move forward in search of solutions.

On the negative side, the unexpected successes of novice post-Occupy candidates last November, and in the February by-election, resulted in no new insights on the strategy and tactics of electioneering. That means the new candidates look set to make the same mistakes as their pro-democracy predecessors. It might not matter except that democrats don’t contest Hong Kong elections in a vacuum. There is a strong well-organized adversary who has mastered all the necessary arts and never runs for any reason other than to win.

A high-stakes election

Even more crucial this year is the mandate that has been bestowed upon democrats’ main pro-Beijing adversary by none other than Beijing leader Zhang Dejiang (張德江) himself. Not during his visit here last month, but a year ago soon after pan-democrats succeeded in vetoing Beijing’s political reform package.

During their July visit to Beijing after that defeat, he reportedly told leaders of Hong Kong’s largest richest political party (the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB), to win five more seats in the coming Legislative Council election. The aim: to achieve the two-thirds super-majority needed to pass the offending electoral reform proposal on a second try.

Evidently, Beijing will not give in and accept the need to re-design that mainland-style party-managed election design if pro-Beijing candidates and their conservative allies succeed in picking up those five additional seats. But this is not a time to try and reign in the new-found courage of localists, separatists, and other freedom fighters – as Occupy founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting has discovered to his chagrin.

The Basics

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections are too complex and convoluted for easy accurate description. But the basics are clear enough. The council has 70 seats, equally divided: 35 seats are filled directly by voters in Hong Kong’s five election districts; 35 seats are filled by electors in mostly occupational categories. The former are called Geographic Constituencies, the latter Functional Constituencies.

Polling places in the five districts number just over 400 and all of Hong Kong’s 3.7 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots for Geographic Constituency candidates. Each of the five districts are represented by more or less the same number of councilors, depending on population density. The number of seats to be filled in each district this September: Hong Kong Island (6); Kowloon West (6); Kowloon East (5); New Territories West (9); New Territories East (9).

Still, filling these seats is not as straightforward as it might seem. Instead of winner-take-all, the post-colonial powers-that-be insisted on introducing proportional representation. The idea was to prevent any one party from controlling the legislature because in those early days, pro-democracy reformers were winning most of the seats and Beijing was fearful of a hostile takeover. The form of party-list single transferable vote that was adopted has more than fulfilled the original intended purpose. The temptations for aspiring politicians lie within this voting method.

Votes are allocated so as to “waste” as few as possible. On Election Night as vote counting begins, the total number of ballots cast in each district is divided by the number of seats to be filled. This produces the number of votes needed to win one seat. If a party’s list receives more votes than needed for one seat, the remainder are transferred to the number two candidate on that party’s list. The rank order of candidates on each list is the party’s choice, not that of the voters.

Parties sometimes position their candidates in hopes of winning two seats from a single list – or they may simply opt to sponsor more than one list in a district, which is allowed. Or small parties run lists hoping to pick up the last seat in a district. This can be won with the largest number of remaining votes, however many or few. Candidates can thus be awarded seats without having earned the designated number of votes officially needed to win a seat in that district and here is where the greatest temptation lies. Marginal parties can win with only a marginal share of the vote.

The 35 Functional Constituency (FC) seats are filled in a more complicated fashion, some by individual voters, some by jointly registered or corporate bodies. Additionally, five of these seats are elected by all 3.7 million voters. But these five seats are a mix of direct and indirect election.

Only Hong Kong’s 400-plus elected members of its 18 District Councils can nominate and be nominated for these five special seats. Once nominated, however, all 3.7 million registered voters are eligible to do the final honors, which is why they’ve been dubbed “super-seats.” They’re the result of the ill-fated 2010 reform compromise that caused the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho Chun-yan (何俊仁) so much grief.

Otherwise, there are 28 traditional FCs responsible for filling 30 traditional FC seats. This is done with a mix of corporate and individual votes. They include, according to the government’s latest provisional registration figures for 2016: 223,389 individual voters and 15,806 corporate bodies. These two categories contain many anomalies and overlaps and are regularly likened to what the British used to refer to long ago in their own pre-reform days as “rotten boroughs.”

New wave hopefuls and others

As of now, what has heretofore been known as the pan-democratic caucus occupies a total of 27 Legislative Council seats. These include: 18 from the directly elected Geographic Constituencies; three super-seats; and six traditional FCs. But so enthusiastic are the post-Occupy hopefuls that they’re announcing plans to test the waters with multiple lists in every category. They’re also throwing caution to the winds – especially given the high stakes, and the lessons that should have been learned from the last, 2012 election.

That was when pan-dem candidates fell into all the traps laid for them by the electoral system and allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered to a greater degree than usual. And that’s why they won only 18 of the 35 Geographic Constituency seats – despite maintaining their approximate 55-plus % share of the total vote (which is nevertheless down substantially compared to 20 years ago).

The filing deadline for nominations is not until the end of July. But those who have announced their intention to enter the Sept. 4 election race, beginning with the most daring in terms of their ideas and emerging platforms, include:

Alliance of Resuming British Sovereignty over Hong Kong and Independence (香港歸英獨立聯盟), a new party just announced yesterday. The idea is to return to the starting line, abrogate the 1997 Sino-British agreement whereby Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China, and allow Britain to grant Hong Kong independence instead. Plans to run one list per district.

Hong Kong National Party (香港民族黨), introduced in late March as the first local party to declare for independence – talking treason – details yet to be announced.

A coalition of militant localists, not all young but all new-wave champions of Hong Kong autonomy and self-determination, with their own groups. Plans to run at least one list per district:

Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) Edward Leung Tin-kei, New Territories East.

Hong Kong Resurgence (香港復興會), Horace Chin Wan-kan, New Territories East.

Proletarian Political Institute (普羅政治學苑), Raymond Wong Yuk-man, Kowloon West.

Civic Passion (熱血公民), Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, Hong Kong Island; Cheng Chung-tai, New Territories West; Wong Yeung-tat, Kowloon East (?).

Independent localist, James Chan Kwok-keung (陳國強), super-seat candidate.

New-wave post-Occupy student generation, trending toward moderation in ideas and actions but refusing to accept Hong Kong’s current one-country, two-systems status as is:

Youngspiration (青年新政), heading a coalition of several post-Occupy groups; convener Baggio Leung Chung-hang to contest.

Demosisto (香港眾志), Joshua Wong is too young to qualify as a candidate; former university student leader Nathan Law to contest Hong Kong Island.

The “old” pan-democratic parties, now all declaring for self-determination (still undefined) but not independence, beginning with the closest in spirit to the new-wave post-Occupy generation:

Neo-Democrats (新民主同盟), New Territories East, plus a super-seat.

Civic Party (公民黨), Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, New Territories East; Tanya Chan, Hong Kong Island.

League of Social Democrats/People Power (社民連,人民力量) teaming up with joint lists, one per district.

Labour Party (工黨) one list per district.

Neighborhood and Workers Service Centre (街工) , super-seat

Democratic Party (民主黨), one list per district, plus two super-seat lists.

Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (民協), four lists.

Plus two new “mild and moderate” spin-offs from their parent Civic and Democratic Parties, led by ex-members opposed to Occupy in 2014 and the 2015 veto:

Path of Democracy (民主思路), two lists, not to include founder Ronny Tong.

Third Side (新思維), three lists.

Responding to the new wave energy, many veterans from both ends of the spectrum are stepping down and will not contest the coming election. They include Albert Ho and Emily Lau (劉慧卿) from the Democratic Party; the Civic Party’s Alan Leong (梁家傑) and Kenneth Chan (陳家洛); plus three pro-Beijing stalwarts. Additionally, both the pro-Beijing camp and conservative establishment types (Liberal Party and Regina Ip’s New People’s Party) will be introducing newcomers to partner with veteran incumbents.

Benny Tai to the rescue

During a recent TV interview, DAB chair Starry Lee Wai-king said her party had been “lucky” in 2012. It would be difficult to win the same share of seats this year, she continued, implying that her adversaries would smarten up and not make the same mistakes again. Probably, she was just trying to be polite. The DAB will have even more adversaries this time around and there is as yet no indication that the novice politicians are giving any thought at all to the mistakes of 2012.

A few months ago, as the young hopefuls began announcing their plans, veterans like Albert Ho began reminding them about the dangers of running too many lists and splitting the pro-democracy vote. He should know. His Democratic Party made the mistake of running two lists in New Territories West and won nothing – despite receiving more than enough votes for one seat. Also in New Territories West, the Civic Party placed two of its leading members on the same list. The idea was to attract enough votes to win two seats. But they only received enough for one seat thus wasting many thousands of pro-democracy votes.

The Civic Party used the same strategy on Hong Kong Island to the same result. Also on Hong Kong Island in 2012, three other pro-democracy candidates ran just for the experience of running. They won a total of 37,000 pro-democracy votes, more than enough for a seat in the district. The DAB’s good luck followed from these mistakes. Calculating more of the same in Kowloon East that year, pan-democrats could have won at least three additional seats in 2012. The voices of experience have nevertheless been falling on deaf ears.

Baggio Leung, convener of the Youngspiration coalition, rejected the idea of coordinating with Joshua Wong’s Demosisto, saying it was important to give voters more choices. Leung also said his group wanted to make use of the election campaign to promote its own plans for self-determination, which are slightly different than Wong’s. Leung had earlier said it would be difficult to coordinate with Horace Chin’s localist coalition. Neither Youngspiration nor Demosisto adhere to Horace Chin’s brand of localism, which they regard as discriminatory.

Leung is saying what many democracy activists have said before him: elections are a means, not an end. For him the September poll is an opportunity to explain self-determination to the widest possible audience because election campaigns are when the most people are paying the most attention to politics.

Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, pan-dems’ candidate coordinator for over a decade, carries on with his mission but says this year is especially difficult. Professor Benny Tai decided to try and do something more. He introduced his idea early this year, perhaps remembering how he launched the Occupy movement with a single dramatically-worded article three years ago, in early 2013. He calls his latest plan Thunderbolt (雷動計劃).

Tai has committed himself to the cause of self-determination for Hong Kong and was targeting especially its new-wave post-Occupy advocates – who were not impressed with his good intentions. Someone said his plan would be a “nightmare” to implement. Someone else said it would be unfair to smaller parties. Prof. Tai means well but doesn’t understand anything about electioneering, and so on. He has now revised his plan several times.

The thunderbolt he proposed was a 50% pro-democracy presence in the Legislative Council come September: 35 of the 70 seats. This would give them stronger bargaining power in future political reform negotiations with Beijing. Pan-dem legislators had barely managed to hold together their one-third veto-power strength last year in order to defeat Beijing’s electoral reform mandate. The pressures had been intense. There was little margin for error.

Tai proposed to accomplish the goal with a logical do-able mix of seats. Democrats should be able to retain their three super seats, and win three more Functional Constituency seats to make nine instead of only six. The directly-elected Geographic Constituency seats were something else again. They should actually be easy since pro-democracy candidates are still taking 55+% share of the direct popular vote. But they would have to win 23 of the 35 seats instead of only 18 as in 2012 (23 + 3 + 9 = 35).

To achieve his ideal 23-seat goal, however, Tai said the safest way to avoid splitting the pro-democracy vote would be to limit the number of lists fielded to the number of seats needed.

At the time, activists were just beginning to make their election plans. But they were all thinking in terms of more, not less. The preliminary hopefuls noted above would add up to close to 40 lists. And that roster is far from complete.

With Benny Tai’s plan, not only would pro-democracy parties and candidates have to coordinate and sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but voters would also have to do their part by casting ballots for candidates they probably didn’t like.

So Tai revised his plan. He suggested that in each of the five election districts, idealistic contingents of 10-20,000 voters could be mobilized to vote for candidates that polls identified as being in trouble. This version didn’t go down very well either.

One snag was that Tai seemed to be talking about exit polls on Election Day itself, with voters being alerted to come out late in the day – the art of the late afternoon phone call, a tactic that the DAB has long been rumored to rely on even though it violates Hong Kong election rules. Still, the pro-Beijing press couldn’t resist expressing shock at a law professor making such a proposal.

Undeterred, Tai amended his plan again and gave it a new name: ThunderGo. Several activist groups have also finally rallied to help him out. They’ve formed a new alliance called Citizens United in Action and are designing a new instant messaging app. Their program, called Votsonar, should be able to share data about voters’ preferences and like-minded candidates, plus their poll ratings as Election Day nears – all without actually telling anyone how to vote.

This idea has possibilities. But Benny Tai’s effort to impose some discipline on the energies his movement unleashed is, for now, a work in progress.

The filing deadline for nominations is July 29. Campaigning will begin in earnest after the annual July First protest march this Friday, when pro-democracy contenders and their campaign teams will be out in force all along the route. Everyone will be doing their best to explain why their ideas are the best ideas for use in safeguarding Hong Kong’s political future.

This is the second in a two-part feature. The first can be read here.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole