Legco by-election defeat: a wake-up call for pan-dems

November 28, 2018 11:21
Lee Cheuk-yan (third right) speaks to supporters in Kowloon West. The results of Sunday's by-election provide lessons for the pan-democratic camp. Photo: HKEJ

The popular theory that low voter turnout often works against the pan-democrats in elections was once again illustrated in Sunday's Legislative Council by-election for the remaining seat in the Kowloon West geographical constituency.

Some 218,000 or 44.4 percent of the voters cast their ballots, similar to the turnout during the by-election in March, but significantly down by nearly 14 percent when compared with the number of voters in the same constituency in the 2016 Legco race.

The election results showed that pro-establishment candidate Chan Hoi-yan took some 106,000 votes, prevailing over her pan-democratic rival Lee Cheuk-yan by a margin of about 13,000 votes.

As for Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who had come under enormous fire from pan-dems for trying to derail Lee’s election bid, he only received 12,509 votes.

In other words, Chan snapped up more votes than both Lee and Fung combined.

According to conventional wisdom, pan-democratic candidates would always have an advantage over their pro-establishment rivals in any Legco by-election, which is often a “single seat, single vote” race.

That conventional wisdom was shaken when pan-democratic candidate Edward Yiu Chung-yim was defeated by Vincent Cheng Wing-shun representing the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in the Kowloon West by-election in March.

If Cheng’s surprise victory was a “miracle”, then can we categorize Chan’s latest triumph as the “new norm”?

Perhaps the growth in the vote totals of the pro-Beijing camp in the two by-elections can provide a clue.

The March 11 and Nov. 25 races both saw a low voter turnout. But even so, the vote totals of both Cheng and Chan witnessed a growth.

Simply put, not only did Cheng and Chan manage to secure the approximately 102,000 votes that two seasoned pro-establishment candidates – Ann Chiang Lai-wan of the DAB and Priscilla Leung Mei-fun of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong (BPA) – took in the 2016 Legco race, but the two rookies were also able to expand their support base.

In the 2016 race, the pan-democratic and localist candidates grossed a total of nearly 160,000 votes. Yet neither Yiu, Lee nor Fung could prevent a significant loss of these votes in the two by-elections this year.

It may be true that the pro-establishment camp has the luxury of having a stable and rock-solid support base, but the fundamental question is, shouldn’t the pan-dems also deeply reflect on their situation and try to figure out why they are no longer appealing to voters?

Rather than blaming Fung for dividing the pan-democrats' support base, perhaps what Lee and the entire pan-democratic camp should do is to ask why the so-called “6:4 golden ratio” which they have been relying on to win in the geographical constituencies through direct elections in the past just vanished without a trace this time around?

If we dig deeper, we will find that the demographic group that the pan-dems have alienated most is probably the localist supporters, most of whom are young people.

In the eyes of these young voters, Fung is apparently no longer one of them. Nor can they relate to Lee, who, from their point of view, appears more like an estranged 60-something senior than anything else.

Worse still, like in the by-election in March, some localist supporters once again adopted the so-called “scorched-earth policy”, this time by calling on voters to cast a blank ballot rather than vote for the pro-democracy candidates, something that proved fatal for the pan-dems.

The successive defeats of the pro-democracy camp in the two Legco by-elections this year mean they failed to reclaim their veto power in the legislature under the split voting system.

Their defeats also mean that in the remaining two years of this Legco term, the political balance will continue to be tilted in the pro-establishment camp’s favor, which is definitely not a good thing when it comes to maintaining Legco oversight of the government.

Apart from losing the support of localists, the pan-dems must also face another two harsh truths: first, the fragmentation of the pro-democracy camp has already taken a heavy toll on its popularity; and second, their election platforms have proven unattractive to centrist and undecided voters, who make up the majority of our electorate.

The decisive influence of centrist voters was again proven in the latest “nine-in-one” local elections in Taiwan.

That being said, perhaps what Lee should be doing right now is not blaming the stable and solid support base of other candidates, vote snatching as well as blank votes for his loss, but rather, blaming himself for having failed to win the hearts and minds of centrist voters.

To put it more frankly, the fact that Chan was still able to push new demographic frontiers despite a low voter turnout in Sunday's by-election indicates that she is a lot more attractive to centrist voters than Lee.

Unless the pan-dems can learn the painful lessons of their successive losses and start rejuvenating themselves drastically, one can hardly be optimistic about their prospects in future elections.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 27

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal