What's the message from the district council election?

November 23, 2015 16:00
Hong Kong's district council elections saw some veterans from both the establishment camp and the pan-democrats suffering shock defeats. Photo: Reuters

With the results being declared in Sunday's district council elections, political groups in Hong Kong will now begin a post-mortem in earnest.

Although the overall outcome was along expected lines, with pro-establishment candidates bagging a lion's share of the seats, the election has delivered some surprises for all camps.

Following a record turnout, both the pro-Beijing and the pan-democratic camps saw some veteran lawmakers suffer defeats at the hands of first-time candidates and political greenhorns.  

For instance, Christopher Chung of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) failed in his re-election bid from Yue Wan constituency in Eastern District.

The long-time councilor was trounced by political newcomer Chui Chi-kin, who decided to enter the fray after being inspired by the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

Elsewhere, lawmaker Elizabeth Quat also failed to retain her district council seat, providing another shock to the pro-Beijing DAB.

Meanwhile, even the pan-democrats had their own share of setbacks.

Albert Ho and Frederick Fung, who have been in public life for more than two decades, lost their seats to pro-Beijing challengers.

Ho belongs to the Democratic Party, while Fung is the former chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood.

Sunday's polls saw nearly 1.7 million people cast their ballot, out of the 3.12 million eligible to vote in the contested constituencies.

That translates to a voter turnout rate of 47 percent, a historical high for such elections after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In the previous district council election in 2011, the voter turnout stood at 41.4 percent.

While the turnout hit a new record, it appears that both the pan-democrats and the pro-Beijing groups failed to lure the youth vote to their side in significant numbers.

Defeats handed out to political veterans suggest that young voters opted for new faces to represent their communities, rather than the older generation that has long dominated public affairs. 

It is worth noting that apart from Chui, there were at least two other candidates associated with the Umbrella Movement who scored upset wins in the Sunday elections.

Wong Chi-ken won from the Lok Wah North constituency of Kwun Tong, while Clarisse Yeung emerged victorious in Tai Hang constituency of Wan Chai.

According to some reports, a total of eight candidates with links to the 2014 Occupy protests got elected to the district councils.

The success of Occupy-inspired greenhorns tells us that voters have placed a premium on the candidates' sincerity, and that they were willing to overlook the newbies' inexperience.

Localist group Youngspiration was the largest of post-Occupy "Umbrella Soldier" groups to take part, fielding nine candidates. Kwong Po-yin won in Whampoa West constituency of Kowloon City over incumbent Lau Wai-wing.

Other winners from such groups included Tai Po Sunshine's Lau Yung-wai and Wong Hok-lai of Shatin Community Network.

The record turnout suggests that locals have started taking the district elections more seriously as political awareness, especially among first-time voters, has risen following the Occupy campaign.

The younger generation is bored of the traditional struggle for power between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps, and wants to bring in new voices to local affairs.

By opting for newcomers, people have told the established political groups that they cannot take their support for granted.

While some observers have labeled the district polls as a gauge for democracy sentiments in the city, the reality is that politics played only a small part in the game.

What voters focused upon more was livelihood issues at the district level, and which candidates showed more promise with regard to improving the living environment.

The newcomers, as well as some younger members of the Democratic Party, Civic Party and NeoDemocrats who won their seats, have stressed the importance of ground-level work in the community.

NeoDemocrats, which is a group of district councilors led by lawmaker Gary Fan, has been a big winner in the election.

The party, which is composed of a group of former Democratic Party members, won 15 seats out of 16 nominated candidates.

Their success indicates that voters supported the "localist" position that advocates clear differentiation between China and Hong Kong, and to put Hong Kong people's interests foremost in local community services.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, which won only 43 seats in the election, can no longer position itself as a senior in the pan-democrat camp, as their winning ratio was only 45 percent.

The outcome shows that its candidates failed to benefit from the party branding. Voters are focused more on candidates' charisma and campaign pledges rather than the party name.

Some political analysts feel that Democratic Party seniors should step aside and transfer power to the younger generation in the run-up to the Legislative Council election next year. 

Pro-establishment candidates won 298 seats out of the 431 up for grabs, compared with 125 for the pan-democrats.

While democrats won 25 seats more from the previous election, there is still a huge gap between themselves and the pro-Beijing camp. 

As for the pro-Beijing camp, it lost 11 seats in total. The DAB conceded 17 seats, although it retained its status as the biggest party with 119 seats.

Looking at the big picture, the pan-democrats, especially the Democratic Party, need to rethink their positioning after the election.

Political seniors should give more space to the younger generation if they want their parties to tap into first-time voters in the upcoming LegCo election.

Overall, there is one thing that all parties need to bear in mind: Hong Kong people are getting bored and disillusioned with the current crop of politicians, and are looking for fresh alternatives.

People want better, younger and smarter choices, both from democrats as well as Beijing loyalists.

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EJ Insight writer