With only 46% of voters turning out for yesterday’s New Territories East by-election, we probably shouldn’t read too much into the result. But right-thinking lovers of freedom and decency are certainly entitled to smirk. (Copious coverage here and here.)
The mainstream pro-democrat candidate, Alvin Yeung of the Civic Party, won. In a straight two-horse race, this would have been a foregone conclusion in the demographically pro-dem constituency (basically middle-class/Greater Shatin). But with two other pan-dems cannibalizing the vote, it is more noteworthy. It maintains the Legislative Council pro-dem bloc at a level at which it can obstruct the government through such means as filibustering, and it can prevent the pro-Beijing bloc from tightening the rules on such parliamentary procedures. (His platform specifically promised such opposition to the copyright amendments and High-Speed Rail boondoggle. He has also done legal aid work for Occupy protesters.)
The Communist Party United Front’s man, Holden Chow of the DAB, came a close second. With the top-down discipline and organization of the pro-Beijing machine behind him – and a split opposition – he should have won. His campaign had the resources to swamp districts with publicity material, buy voters meals and drag the elderly to polling stations.
Part of his problem may have been the unfortunate sliminess that afflicts even the younger, more cosmopolitan DAB members. And some voters must have felt taken for granted being invited to pick an in-house lawyer for property developer New World as a representative. (Plus the blubby cry-baby stuff.) He also failed to win overt, sincere-looking support from several other pro-Beijing groups, namely the Liberals and, more important, the rural Heung Yee Kuk, which can mobilize voters but is also mulling running its own candidates in the full Legislative Council election in September.
The icing on the cake for many pro-dems is localist Edward Leung’s third place. For a radical, extremist separatist-with-terrorist-leanings Mongkok Fishball Riot participant to get 15% of the vote – while the mainstream pan-dem still wins – is a hilarious kick in the head for the Chinese Communist Party. Just as everyone is supposed to be lining up to denounce Hong Kong Indigenous and similar groups as dangers to Hong Kong and national security, 66,524 splittist sympathizers suddenly appear out of nowhere at the ballot box.
There was a third pan-dem in this race – Nelson Wong Sing-chi, a defector from the Democratic Party who dreams of a ‘third way’ by which hyper-moderates can induce Beijing to see reason. The by-election was triggered in the first place by the self-important resignation of Ronny Tong who quit the Civic Party to form a similar ‘third way’ grouping. Both look bound for oblivion. (Mildly eccentric neighbourhood activist Independent Christine Fong got double the votes of Wong.)
The final tally: the three pan-dems together won 245,000 votes, versus the DAB’s 150,000.
So we can’t conclude what the by-election means in terms of formal politics – like Legco proceedings or the September poll. Maybe we don’t have to, since that whole constitutional approach is looking less relevant by the day. We can say that the NT East result completely contradicts the official Communist Party/Hong Kong government line that the Hong Kong public is united in hatred for extremist separatists and the mealy-mouthed pan-dems who find excuses for them. It seems lots of people are quite cool with them. There will be seething in Beijing’s local Liaison Office, and the Hong Kong government’s determination to avoid self-reflection at all costs will look all the more awkward. Hong Kong just isn’t following the script.