23 October 2016
Hong Kong's new legislature will be different as some veteran legislators, such as Raymond Wong (pictured here), failed to get re-elected while a new crop of localism-supporting activists scored stunning wins. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong's new legislature will be different as some veteran legislators, such as Raymond Wong (pictured here), failed to get re-elected while a new crop of localism-supporting activists scored stunning wins. Photo: HKEJ

High drama in Hong Kong elections

A record turnout, an increasingly politicized electorate (thanks to the 2014 Umbrella Movement) and last-minute strategy changes by pan-democrats have enabled the opposition to thwart hopes of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to produce a legislature with a two-thirds pro-government majority, which would strip the opposition of their ability to veto constitutional changes.

The Legislative Council election on Sunday, which was billed as the most closely-fought contest in Hong Kong’s history, was marked by several stunning upsets. 

Social activists who back localism, if not independence, have won a bloc of seats, thereby emerging as a new political force. The activists, while generally aligned with the traditional pan-democrats, come with their own thinking and approaches vis-à-vis the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.

As new members of the pan-democratic camp, they will influence its positioning and strategy, especially since the biggest vote-getter in the election was social activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who amassed over 84,000 votes but had attracted little attention from the mainstream media earlier.

Another surprise was Nathan Law, a student leader in the 2014 protest movement, who also won a seat. At 23, he is the youngest person ever elected into the legislature.

Among other candidates, Ricky Wong — a media entrepreneur — failed to garner a seat, contrary to general expectations.

The election of people like Eddie Chu and Nathan Law enabled the pan-democrats to win 19 of the 35 seats in the geographical constituencies, which means that they will be able to block motions, bills and amendments to government bills proposed by pro-establishment lawmakers.

Half of the legislators in the 70-member house are elected through five geographical constituencies and the rest from functional constituencies, such as business and professional bodies. The former has always been dominated by pan-democrats and the latter by pro-establishment legislators.

The pro-establishment camp not only failed to win a two-thirds majority of overall seats, it also failed to win a majority of geographical seats, which would have deprived the pan-democrats of the ability to block motions and amendments to government bills proposed by other legislators.

The legislature to be seated next month is very different from its predecessors.

Gone are the leading lights of the past, such as Emily Lau and Albert Ho, former chairmen of the Democratic Party, who chose to retire. Gone, too, are such veteran legislators as Lee Cheuk-yan, Cyd Ho and the radical Raymond Wong, famed for throwing bananas and other objects in the legislature, all of whom lost their seats.

Instead, there is a new crop of legislators in their twenties and thirties, including localists who by law are not allowed to support independence but who champion related ideas such as self-determination.

Thus, there is likely to be greater dissension within the ranks of pan-democrats and greater confrontation between legislators and the government. The gridlock in executive-legislative relations may well worsen.

This was an election with many “firsts”, including the first time that the Electoral Affairs Commission had required candidates to declare in writing that they do not support Hong Kong independence. In the end, six candidates were disqualified on the ground of support for independence.

Three days before the election, a rolling poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong suggested that the highly fragmented pan-democratic camp was likely to lose heavily. Subsequently, seven pan-democratic candidates announced an end to campaigning in an attempt to consolidate support for the camp overall.

This worked to some extent, but still a number of veteran politicians lost because votes for pan-democrats were not evenly distributed.

The election on Sunday was not to determine who would run Hong Kong. The term of Chief Executive Leung won’t expire until next June, and it is still unknown if the Chinese government will give him a second term.

Technically, the choice will be made in March by a 1,200-member Election Committee. However, given the fact that most members of the committee are loyal to Beijing, they will in effect endorse Beijing’s chosen candidate, who will then be formally appointed by the Chinese government.

But Sunday’s election is likely to influence Beijing’s decision as to whether to allow the current chief executive a second term. It depends on how Beijing interprets the poll outcome.

If Beijing feels that the Hong Kong government did well by excluding independence advocates from running, perhaps it will extend the Leung’s term. But if Beijing feels that he did not go far enough to block localists from winning seats, then his fate may well be different.

Between now and March, Beijing will decide if it wants a new man in charge in Hong Kong.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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