Moment of Truth

It would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of next Sunday’s Legislative Council elections. The outcome will play a major role in determining Hong Kong’s political future. The repercussions could extend beyond the immediate four year term that successful candidates will secure for themselves, and shape our course up to and even beyond 2047.

The first question is whether the initial results will be allowed to stand. Returning officers rejected nomination submissions from six candidates and several have launched legal action challenging the decision to exclude them. If the courts rule later that the purported powers to ban did not in fact exist, or were unlawfully exercised, then there will be a round of by-elections at a time when the political temperature will be running red hot.

The second question, once the final outcome is known, is whether or not the pan democrats will have been successful in retaining their one third blocking minority. This is important because changes to some key practices and procedures – including electoral reform itself -- require a two-thirds majority.

In elections immediately after the handover, the pan democrats could muster around 60 per cent of the popular vote. This has gradually softened to about 55 per cent which still proved enough to give them 24 or more of the 70 seats. But there is a danger of further softening which would weaken their grip on the geographical 35 seats and the five super seats where they have done well in the past. In addition, pro administration forces are making a determined bid to prise away some of the functional constituency seats traditionally held by pan democrats. Either way, their hold on the blocking minority is at risk.

What are the major factors which could cause a shift in voter sentiment? The DAB and other pro government parties have made a big play on the lingering resentment about the disruption caused by Occupy and the extensive filibustering which has slowed or even prevented government business. For their part, the pan dems have pointed to the manifestly inadequate political reform proposals and lack of progress on livelihood issues (derisory minimum wage level, rejection of universal pension, failure to advance on setting working hours etc).

Personally, I do not see Occupy as a powerful tool. Hong Kong people have short memories and a forgiving nature. Yes, it was disruptive when it happened but it ended peacefully and many see it as a commensurate response to the administration’s failing on political reform. The almost non-stop filibustering is a different matter. The pan dems have taken their "stop CY at all costs" campaign too far. When even a matter like bringing in a much needed mild reform to the Medical Council – patently justified and very much in the public interest -- is made a victim of negative politics, then I think many people will lose patience. They may not actually switch their vote to another party, but they may well not bother to turn out on the day which would be just as damaging.

The big new joker in the pack – some would say in more ways than one – is the emergence of a group professing strong localist sympathies. Some of their supporters even use the word "Independence" but I think that is more of a tactic to annoy Beijing and provoke the Liaison office into over-reacting (rather successfully, I must say). Similarly with the calls for Britain to resume sovereignty – what a joke, becoming a colony again would be the very opposite of independence. So not a serious proposal, but guaranteed to have rabid pro Beijing spokesmen foaming at the mouth.

It seems likely they will draw thousands of votes, mostly one suspects from among traditional pan democratic supporters. There is a real prospect of two or three localist candidates being elected, especially given the way our large population/multiple seat constituencies are structured. What is not known at this stage – and only the election itself will answer the question -- is how damaging this will be to the lists put up by the mainstream pan democrats.

Another new factor, significance untested, is the decision by a number of long serving political leaders to step down at this election and pass the baton to the next generation. They can do this either by not standing at all, or by dropping themselves down the list in the hope that the pulling power of their reputations (their names will still be on the ballot paper) will be enough to get the first person on the list elected even if most voters in the constituency have no clue as to who that candidate is. It was important for the parties to begin the renewal process, but it does introduce another element of uncertainty into what was already a fluid situation.

One way or the other, academics and commentators are going to have plenty of material to pore over in the very near future.