It would be useful to have a plain, everyday pie-chart showing which party won what percentage of votes across Hong Kong in yesterday’s District Council elections. Even without one, however, it is clear that the pan-democrats got a beating, which should – but almost certainly won’t – convince them to get their act together for the Legislative Council elections next year.
There were two main reasons. Doctrinal divisions that led People Power radicals to run against the Democratic Party meant that the camp cannibalized its own vote in some constituencies. And the pro-establishment groups and media did a thoroughly effective job of smearing the Civic Party with, for example, allegations of wanting to swamp the city with millions of Filipinos.
All three strands of the pro-democracy camp can claim moral high ground. The Democratic Party did something genuinely unprecedented last year by pressuring Beijing officials into sitting down and negotiating with it over constitutional reform. The purist radicals were outraged at the fact that the DP had actually talked to the enemy. Civic Party members meanwhile put their consciences before their popularity in such endeavours as the by-election quasi-referendum, and (in their private capacity) in the court cases on the Zhuhai bridge and permanent residency for domestic helpers. All very noble.
The pro-establishment opposition, on the other hand, does not indulge in such displays of righteousness or independence. With its organizers and resource providers coordinated ultimately by Beijing officials, it largely follows United Front orders across the board.
If the results of these local elections were replicable in next year’s Legco polls, it could mean the end of the traditional pattern whereby the pro-democrats routinely get a good 60% of the vote. Indeed, if the People Power/LSD radicals maintain their militant anti-DP stance, their share of the vote can pretty much be categorized as pro-Beijing in effect, which really would bring the total pan-democratic camp vote below 50%, thus ending the mandate it has enjoyed – and frittered away – since Martin Lee’s heyday in the 1990s.
They would deserve it. The pro-dems are inevitably an extremely broad church, spanning Trotskyists, Catholics, petit-bourgeois and millionaires, and agreeing on little more than abstract ideals of individual liberty and universal suffrage. They will never have the unity of the pro-Beijing camp, disciplined through late-night Liaison Office phone calls and fear of excommunication. But if they really believe what they say, they have a duty to put differences aside and focus on the most practical and effective means of getting results.
The opportunities were handed to them on a plate. For years, the property tycoons’ behaviour, the repetitive favouritism shown them by government and the overall social and economic impact of the state/land/cartel complex have been screaming out as an issue for the pro-democrats to grab and never let go of. They could have been major trouble to the Hong Kong power structure. (Pro-Beijing activists have to swallow their disgust and moderate their criticism of the Communist-co-opted tycoons. It is true that some wealthier pro-democrats, like lawyers with corporate business, are in on the Hong Kong Property Pyramid Scheme themselves, but that’s relatively marginal.)
Instead, the pro-democrats were largely fixated by full universal suffrage – a concept anathema to, and expressly ruled out by, the sovereign power. It was more fun, more heroic, more principled and for years more interesting to Western media. But Beijing has skillfully made the theme of democracy less and less relevant to Hong Kong people – part of the reason why the tycoons and the wealth gap have risen in prominence. The pro-democrats have dreamily campaigned on about their ultimate goal as if they have no need of a 60% support base.
And here’s the weird thing: they can probably get by without it in next year’s Legislative Council elections. Back in the mid-90s, pro-democrats swept the board in elections for directly elected Legco seats, thanks to the first-past-the-post voting system. In order to give the less popular pro-Beijing DAB a better chance, the post-handover regime established a complex proportional representation system, which gives seats to losers as well as winners. The whole idea was to benefit parties too unpopular to get 50% of the vote. Ironic or what?