Which side really won in the Legco by-election?

March 15, 2018 09:30
Hong Kong's Legco by-election results mark further proof that public mood is fickle and ever-changing. Photo: HKEJ

People often read too much into an election result. Election outcomes are merely snapshots of the public mood at a given time. It is quite possible that if the same election was held again a month later the outcome could be very different depending on how much the public mood had been affected by political events.

Most analysts and opinion polls had forecast a victory for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election. But Donald Trump shocked America and the world by winning. He won because he knew how to exploit a section of the public mood represented mostly by white voters in swing states fed up with job losses and politically correct liberal left ideology.

Calling them the forgotten Americans, Trump turned them into a loyal part of his voter base by tapping into their anger. His surprise victory, however, was only a snapshot of the public mood on November 8, 2016 when voters went to the polls. A large part of his voter base remains loyal but much has happened between then and now.

His unconventional methods, caustic language, and middle-of-the-night tweets attacking his foes has unsettled many Americans and even politicians from his own Republican Party. The public mood has changed so much that many doubt he would win if the same election was held again.

How should we read the result of last Sunday’s Legislative Council by-election in Hong Kong to fill four seats vacated by disqualified legislators? The political atmosphere had changed dramatically with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as chief executive compared to when Leung Chun-ying was leader. Did these factors influence the public mood?

The opposition had counted on the sympathy factor to help them re-take all four seats. They dubbed the election a de facto referendum on the government’s disqualification of six pan-democrat Legco members and the barring of Agnes Chow-ting from becoming a candidate. The establishment camp also dubbed it a de facto referendum but defined it as a vote on the rule of law and a return to civil behavior in Legco.

Each side won two seats, which meant neither side read the public mood accurately. Was the public mood against the disqualification of six opposition legislators? The answer can only be yes and no. Pan-democrat Au Nok-hin re-took the Hong Kong Island seat vacated by democracy activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung. Fellow pan-democrat Gary Fan Kwok-wai re-took the New Territories East seat vacated by the disqualified Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang.

Was the public mood supportive of the establishment camp’s call for a return to civil behavior in Legco? Again, the answer is yes and no. Their candidates could not defeat Au and Fan but the establishment’s Vincent Cheng Wing-shun did triumph over the disqualified Edward Yiu Chung-yim in Kowloon West for a seat vacated by Yau Wai-ching. And Paul Zimmerman lost to the establishment camp's Tony Tse Wai-chuen in a functional constituency seat vacated by Yiu.

This meant neither side really won. But the election showed clearly the public mood is fickle and ever-changing, which means analyzing election results is an inexact science at best. Commentators rushed to analyze the by-election result, with many casting it as a decline of the democracy movement and the rise of the establishment camp’s call for a return to civil behavior in Legco.

They all based their analyses on two points: Yiu's defeat was the first time the opposition had lost a by-election in a geographical constituency. And the establishment camp had broken the opposition’s traditional 55-45 percent stranglehold on vote share.

But that’s too simplistic a way to view an election outcome. Just because the establishment broke the opposition’s 55-45 percent margin on vote share in a by-election doesn’t mean this is forever set in stone. And just because the opposition lost for the first time in a geographical constituency by-election doesn’t mean the democracy movement is in decline.

Last Sunday’s election was just a snapshot of the public mood at that time. Many politicians and analysts had confidently predicted the scandal involving Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s illegal structures and the disqualification of six legislators would swing voters towards the opposition candidates. But the two issues didn't gain much traction during the election. In fact, the public mood over Cheng scandal shifted somewhat after revelations that Zimmerman also had illegal structures.

The opposition’s Kowloon West loss had more to do with Yiu’s lack of appeal as a candidate than with waning enthusiasm for the democracy movement. It is very possible that a stronger opposition candidate could have re-taken the seat, given Yiu lost only by about 2,000 votes.

There will be another by-election if "Longhair" Leung Kwok-hung and Lau Siu-lai lose their appeals against disqualification. Will the public mood shift between now and then? No one can tell. If Legco functions more smoothly after recent rules changes, if Carrie Lam can succeed in promoting a feel-good factor, and if there is more harmony between rival political camps, the public mood could swing towards the establishment.

But if Beijing further tightens its grip on Hong Kong, if the government continues to target the opposition by banning even more of its candidates from running, and if people feel their freedoms are steadily eroding due to increased meddling by Beijing in domestic affairs, there could well be a public backlash that favors opposition candidates. All these factors will also have a great bearing on the 2020 full-fledged Legco elections.

Hong Kong is like no other city because it is a former British colony accustomed to the lifestyle of a free society without full democracy but is now under the rule of a communist sovereign determined to make sure the city’s freedoms will not be used by foreign forces to undermine the country.

I couldn't help but think about the irony that played out last Sunday in Hong Kong and Beijing, two cities in the same country, which experienced diametrically different types of voting. In Hong Kong, voters had total freedom to elect the legislators they wanted. In Beijing, the National People’s Congress rubber-stamped the proposal to make Xi Jinping president for life if he chooses.

This difference between Hong Kong and the mainland can cause huge and unpredictable changes of mood in the local population. The establishment camp will benefit if Beijing leaves Hong Kong alone. The opposition will benefit if Beijing's heavy hand bears down on the daily lives of the people.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.