When Hong Kong voters went to the polls to select a new Legislative Council (LegCo) on Sept. 9, prodemocracy parties appeared to have the momentum. When the votes were tallied, however, the pro-Beijing parties maintained their dominance in the legislature.
Some astute political maneuvers before the ballot, along with an electoral system that favors pro-Chinese interests, ensured that the status quo prevailed and Hong Kong’s democrats remained frustrated.
LegCo elections are held every four years. This year, for the first time, a majority of seats (40 out of 70; 35 are from geographic constituencies, the remaining five are “superseats” elected by votes from the entire city) were directly elected. The rest are from “functional constituencies,” which are selected by industry and professional groups that tend to lean toward Beijing.
These tentative steps toward more democratic polls are seen as an indicator of the credibility of Beijing’s promise to permit direct election of the Special Administrative Region’s leader by 2017 and a signal of prospects for political evolution on the mainland more generally.
Going into the polls, prodemocracy supporters appeared to have the upper hand. For the last several weeks, Hong Kong has been roiled by protests against the introduction of a new mandatory “moral and national education” curriculum aimed at encouraging Chinese patriotism in Hong Kong schools.
Tens of thousands of protestors — parents and students alike — took to the streets, some conducting hunger strikes, to demand repeal of a program they dismissed as brainwashing. The day before the vote, Mr. Leung Chun Ying, the head of the Hong Kong government, conceded and announced the classes would not be compulsory.
That effectively let the air out of the prodemocracy balloon. When voter turnout reached 53 percent of registered voters, an eight percentage points increase over the last election in 2008, it was assumed that the democrats would post big gains in the tallies. Instead, however, the prodemocracy parties won just 18 of the geographically selected seats, a loss of one from the last ballot, three of the “superseats,” and six from functional constituencies.
By holding on to 27 seats in total — more than one-third — they maintain their veto over potential changes to Hong Kong’s legal charter.
But the big winners were the pro-Beijing parties. While prodemocracy groups picked up four seats over their 2008 holdings, pro-Beijing representatives increased by six as the total number of seats in LegCo was increased from 60 to 70 in this election. The largest party in the legislature, the pro-Beijing Democracy Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, picked up three new seats, expanding its representation to 13 in total.
Observers credit the pro-Beijing business parties for being better organized and better funded. (There are allegations that Beijing surreptitiously funnels money to its backers, a charge that the parties deny.) They appeal to pro-Chinese sentiment, while distancing themselves from “the Communists.”
Given the priority most voters attach to “bread and butter” issues, the claim that these parties enjoy good relations with Beijing is a selling point — it suggests they can get needed help from the mainland. At the same time, the prodemocracy groups — about a dozen in number — tend to fight among themselves, compete for the same votes, lack a grand strategy, and often struggle for funds.
While toting up the winners in the ballot, pride of place may well go to Mr. Leung. He has been a controversial figure in Hong Kong: prior to his election in July, he was charged with being a secret member of the Communist Party (which would have strained to the breaking point the credibility of “one country, two systems”), which he denied, and with an illegal construction in his home, a charge that undermined one of his rivals earlier in the campaign. His decision to beat a tactical retreat on the education issue demonstrated an adroitness and deflated an issue that could have made governance even more difficult.
Among the losers is the territory’s largest prodemocracy party, the Democratic Party, which lost three seats (going from nine to six) and their party chairman who resigned after the defeat. More disturbing, however, is the prospect that a rise in prodemocracy seats along with a corresponding decrease in influence could sour Hong Kong voters on democracy.
If they conclude that the system is stacked against them, they could be encouraged to see the streets as the appropriate venue for political action, rather than ballot boxes.
The gains of more radical parties such as the League of Social Democrats and People Power, which picked up two seats and now claim five in total, could encourage this tendency. These representatives are more confrontational in the legislature and in public — they were among the leaders of protests against education reform — and their success could fuel disillusionment with the more established mainstream democrats.
That is potentially dangerous for Hong Kong. Beijing is already suspicious of the prodemocracy movement and a more vocal and more popular radical faction could confirm doubts about the wisdom of staying the course toward more complete democracy in the Special Administrative Region.