27 October 2016
Benny Tai (center) explains the mechanics of ThunderGo.  Some pro-democracy candidates blame their defeat on the vote allocation scheme. Photo: HKEJ
Benny Tai (center) explains the mechanics of ThunderGo. Some pro-democracy candidates blame their defeat on the vote allocation scheme. Photo: HKEJ

Do we really need a vote allocation strategy?

Beijing and the pro-establishment camp may disagree, but Sunday’s election is a resounding victory for the opposition.

Within the pro-democracy camp, however, the reaction was mixed. 

True, they should all rejoice for having won 30 seats in the incoming Legislative Council.

That means they have secured the required one-third minority to block any government bill that they think is unjust as well as the simple majority in the geographical constituencies to block any unwanted bill initiated by lawmakers.

But at the same time, several veteran lawmakers did not make it to the winning circle, and what makes it all the more frustrating is that they were defeated by newcomers.

Some of these losing candidates, and their supporters, blame their defeat on a novel vote allocation scheme initiated by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who was among the conveners of the Occupy Movement two years ago.

Tai’s ThunderGo campaign was aimed at helping the opposition secure at least half of the Legco seats in the election, or at least 35 seats.

This was done by conducting a series of polls before election day and gathering more than 10,000 participants or “strategic voters” who would decide which candidates should survive in cases of close fights.

The objective of the “strategic voters” was to boost the chances of candidates who were struggling below or just a little above the winning cut-off line based on the poll results announced on election day.

Part of the success of the opposition camp in the election could be attributed to this strategy, but the scheme is also being blamed for the failure of some veteran lawmakers to keep their seats.

To put it simply, Tai wanted the “strategic voters” to go for certain candidates based on his recommendations.

We could go along with Tai’s strategy if we believed that he had no motive other than to maximize the chances of victory for the opposition on the basis of voter preferences and statistical analysis.

But the problem is not Tai did not provide a clear criteria on how he came up with the list.

Several losing candidates complained that they were not recommended even if they had a similar support rate as the ones who got recommended.

One example they cited was what happened in the Kowloon West constituency.

ThunderGo told the strategic voters to support Yau Wai-ching of the localist group Youngspiration to help her win the final seat, but supporters of Wong Yuk-man said their candidate had a higher support rate than Yau in the final poll before the election.

It turned out that less than a third of the strategic voters did not support Wong, which prompted ThunderGo to urge the voters to shift their support to Yau and two other female candidates.

Another case in point is the New Territories West constituency, where veteran lawmaker Lee Cheuk-Yan failed to win the final seat by a narrow margin.

ThunderGo urged the strategic voters to support Civic Party’s Kwok Ka-kei and League of Social Democrats’ Wong Ho-ming in the fight, but the scheme only allowed pro-Beijing candidate Junius Ho Kwan-yiu to grab the final seat.

The strategy, it turned out, blew up in the faces of the opposition.

Supporters said Kwok’s situation was relatively more stable compared with Lee, so they were wondering why ThunderGo went for Kwok instead of Lee. As a result, Lee lost.

It may be too early to conclude that ThunderGo is useless or counterproductive. The methodology and mathematics may even be wrong.

But what is fundamentally important is that Tai and company should have considered the philosophy behind the entire scheme.

In the first place, why should voters support candidates only on the basis of their probability of winning. 

Election is certainly not a Jockey Club horse race. It must be more than that.

It is about picking candidates who voters believe embody their principles and aspirations, candidates who will stand up for what is just and right. It’s not just about winning.

The opposition has been accusing the pro-establishment camp of abuse of power, of using freebies and other enticements to gain the support of voters, of arranging groups of supporters to vote strategically for their candidates.

But if voters follow a scheme where their individual preferences are sacrificed to ensure the victory of the opposition, isn’t that no different from the ways of the pro-Beijing camp?

No doubt, ThunderGo simply aims to allocate the votes of supporters in a more efficient way to win the most number of seats for the opposition.

Strategic voting is being implemented in many mature democratic jurisdictions for quite a long time now, but voters do it on the basis of their personal decisions.

ThunderGo’s idea is to expand such personal decisions to reach the level of the whole community.

However, the main problem is that so far it lacks credibility.

Tai, its main proponent and executioner, is quite a controversial figure.

Some radical activists have accused him of not standing on the frontline during the Occupy protests and disapproved of his decision to surrender to the police.

He was also assailed by some quarters of hijacking the students’ class boycott and turning their protest, particularly their march to the Government House, into the start of his Occupy campaign in 2014.

Given such observations about Tai’s background, some people wonder if ThunderGo’s decisions about supporting or abandoning certain candidates could be based on his personal preferences and decisions rather than on an objective analysis of poll figures.

Some critics went as far as to say that ThunderGo could create more divisions within the opposition instead of confronting the common adversary, namely the Beijing authorities and their loyalists in Hong Kong.

If the pro-democracy forces want a united front against the pro-establishment camp, they should work together to achieve a consolidated list of all their candidates to secure the most number of seats in the election.

They could do an objective analysis of their levels of support on a station-by-station basis.

That should maximize the use of their resources and boost their chances of victory in the most number of constituencies in the election.

Hong Kong people are smart enough to use their own judgement in selecting their representatives in Legco.

In the New Territories East constituency, voters sent all six democrats to the legislature.

Strategic voting can serve as a reference for voters on election day.

Democrats shouldn’t blame the voters for their failure to win a seat; they should realize their level of support in the community before standing in the election.

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EJ Insight writer

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