22 January 2019
The pan-democrats need to cement their support for a single candidate so as to retain Ronny Tong's New Territories East seat in Legco. Photo: HKEJ
The pan-democrats need to cement their support for a single candidate so as to retain Ronny Tong's New Territories East seat in Legco. Photo: HKEJ

Legco by-election could test solidarity of democrats

Now that Ronny Tong Ka-wah has announced his resignation from the Legislative Council with effect from Oct. 1, the government is expected to announce soon a by-election to fill the vacancy.

The by-election will become the first barometer of public opinion after Legco voted down the Beijing-designed electoral reform package last week.

Pan-democrats have been discussing for a long time a possible by-election in an attempt to allow the people of Hong Kong to express their views on electoral reform through their votes.

Now, they have got a chance to achieve that goal, even though voting will be limited to the residents of the New Territories East geographical constituency.

The results should offer a picture of the latest public opinion on the issue.

In fact, the by-election can test public opinion in many dimensions; for example, the rise of localist groups and the fast penetration of the Hong Kong independence mindset among young people.

But now the government’s electoral reform has been killed, it may be difficult for pan-democrats or the pro-establishment camps to compete for the seat relying solely on a political agenda.

The democrats can no longer shout the slogan “fight for universal suffrage” in the coming election, as they voted down the reform package last week and they have no power to urge Beijing to reinitiate the reform process.

What the democrats can focus on in the election could be the upholding of the core values of Hong Kong, their discontent with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, as well as the escalating intervention of Beijing into Hong Kong’s affairs.

That could turn the by-election into a referendum on the Leung administration in the past three years.

The pan-democrats, who won the New Territories East constituency in the 2012 Legco election, need to cement their support for a single candidate so as to retain the seat.

The pro-establishment camp could also face a tough battle in the by-election, as the walkout last week raised the awareness of some of their supporters in the “silent majority” that the pro-Beijing politicians have failed to perform in their supporters’ interest but have instead chosen to follow “big brother” blindly.

That could lead politically neutral voters to abandon their support for the pro-establishment camp and shift it back to the democrats.

New Territories East covers many new private housing estates built for the middle class, which could be a swing factor in favor of the pro-establishment camp in the by-election.

But it is likely that Beijing will play a dirty game in the election campaign by attacking pan-democratic candidates for their participation in the “illegal” Occupy campaign, their close ties with Next Media founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying — who has made large donations to their cause — and for their lack of loyalty to the motherland, which the Communist Party sees as amounting to a mindset favoring independence for Hong Kong.

However, these tactics may not work well after the defeat of the electoral reform plan, as people have seen the drawbacks of blind loyalty to the Communist Party.

Localist groups like Civic Passion and others who took an aggressive front-line role in the 79-day Occupy campaign could seize the opportunity to introduce their political vision during the by-election in an attempt to win greater trust among the public and differentiate themselves from the political veterans.

Some political observers say the by-election could embroil Hong Kong in another round of political argument, contrary to the government’s declared desire to refocus on livelihood issues and avoid the further fragmentation of society by political debate.

People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip said Tong’s resignation will create “another crisis” for the pan-democrats, who will have to act to safeguard their influence in Legco through the majority that they hold of the geographical constituency seats. 

The pan-democrats hold 18 out of 35 geographical seats, versus 17 held by pro-establishment lawmakers, so it might be crucial for the pan-democrats to retain Tong’s seat.

If the by-election turned out to be a showdown between one pan-democrat and one Beijing loyalist, it could reveal clearly the degree to which Hongkongers support each of the two camps.

The pan-democrats should show their solidarity and commitment to their supporters by sparing no effort to keep the seat and maintain a strong opposition.

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EJ Insight writer

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