KERRY BROWN analyses the results of last weekend’s local elections and finds no clear pointer to the outcome of next year’s main legislative elections.
Hong Kong’s district council elections, which were held on Sunday, 22 November, would usually be marked down as a local affair. But because of the Umbrella movement protests during the end of 2014 about proposed constitutional changes and the possible widening of the franchise to vote for the city’s chief executive so passionately discussed and argued over then, this year they have had added significance.
They are, in effect, the first real test of popular opinion in the city after the drama running from 2014 into 2015. Have the protest movement’s attempts to gain support for implementation of more wide-ranging democratic reforms had any traction among the public? Or has the city reaffirmed its stereotype of being a status quo-loving and largely conservative, almost apolitical place?
The 47 per cent turn out, with over one-and-a half million people coming to vote is the first indication. Bearing in mind that elections at this most grassroots level in the UK or Australia rarely get more than 30 per cent coming out to vote, this is a large number. It shows that people do at least feel enough about the outcome to get up and register their opinion.
In terms of the actual outcome itself, however, things are harder to be categorical about. There are a few interesting themes emerging, but none strong enough, at least after this event, to claim as truly seismic. Of the pro-establishment, largely conservative and mostly pro-Beijing parties, the final tally came to 298 seats. For the broadly progressive, pro-democratic parties, the results came in at 120. This is no huge change from the preceding elections in 2011.
But once one looks at the detail, then things become a bit more complicated. Proportionately, by way and afar the most successful party for the whole election was the Neo-Democrats, who won 15 of the 16 seats they contested (93 per cent success rate), and increased their tally from a mere eight in 2011. The candidates from this group are also important because they have an average age of 32. They typify the image of the more politically engaged, restive younger generation that have been sniffily dismissed as `disruptive’ by older, more established and conservative figures.
This doesn’t mean however that Hong Kong is about to enter an era of radical politics. The representatives of much more muscular, assertive political change in the city, the People Power and League of Social Democrats parties, failed to win a single seat between them. But nor does it mean that the city’s political gravity is shifting to the right. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing entity, lost 18 seats, garnering 118 this time. Bearing in mind that the total of its seats in 2011 was more than all of the pro-democrat seats put together, but now is outnumbered by them (albeit by only two), this carries symbolic import.
The same symbolism can be seen on an individual level. Established stalwart of the democracy supporting camp, Albert Ho of the Democracy Party lost his seat in one of the evening’s biggest shocks, particularly as he had been seen as a prospective candidate for the much more significant Legislative Council elections to what is in effect Hong Kong’s parliament to be held next year. Of the 50 candidates associated with the Umbrella protest movement, some won—among the most significant the victory of Kwong Po-yin of the Young Inspiration party who beat Kowloon district councilor Lau Wai-wing, a much older and more experienced politician. Of this 50, however, only seven were successful.
Standing back from all this, the few conclusions one can really state with any real confidence are that they represent a Hong Kong politics becoming much more variegated and complex. Everyone will be able to state, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, that these elections offer some support for their perspective. They give no definite evidence of overwhelming public support for the pro-democracy, protest group standpoint and their demands for universal franchise in elections in 2017. But nor do they show overwhelming public disapproval. Evidently, Hong Kong society remains split on this issue, and a strong consensus has not emerged. But they do show the development of a stronger strand of desire for change. For the leadership of C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, therefore they give no easy answers for how to shape and frame policy in the coming months and years in order to appeal to the widest groups.
Emergence of new generation
They also show the emergence of a new and younger generation of political figures in Hong Kong. This is perhaps the most important aspect. The development of a proper political culture in the city is utterly dependent on people in their twenties and thirties feeling they want to be involved in public life and run as candidates. The experience that figures like Kwong mentioned above get here will be crucial as they pursue possible careers in politics in the future. It will have given them first taste of what success in an electoral battle feels like, just as it will have taught others how the ballot box can pull up ambitions and aspirations no matter how passionately they are expressed. Those that did not succeed this time need to think about whether they wish to persist, and how they want to do this, or whether they will revert to more protest style politics to influence public opinion that way.
We will have more evidence in 2016 when the main legislative elections are held to see where the centre of gravity in Hong Kong’s politics lies. But once more, for all the other areas of complexity and ambiguity from these results, we see yet more compelling proof that far from being a haven of apolitical indifference, Hong Kong in its own way is a place of often vibrant and energetic debate. That remains one of the more positive messages to take away from the district elections of 2015.
Protesters and police face off in Mong Kok on 28 November 2014. The district council elections were the first real test of popular opinion in Hong Kong after the drama running from 2014 into 2015 ( Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence).