Path To Democracy

The good news – such as it is – is that there is a path back to political significance for the pan democrats following their disappointing performance in the recent by-elections. The bad news – and it is pretty grim – is that following that path will require courage, tenacity, strategic thinking and self-restraint, qualities that have been conspicuous by their absence in recent times.

We should start by analysing the outcome of the by-elections. I attach no weight to the loss of the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency seat. This was an unexpected gain last time around and arose only because there were two pro government candidates competing against each other which allowed the democrat to win with a minority share of the vote. The pair did not make the same mistake in the by-election.

The really damaging aspect was the outcome in the three geographic constituencies. The outright loss of the Kowloon West seat was stunning. The inept campaigning style of the losing candidate was certainly a factor, but there were also signs of disunity in the camp, and a general fatigue among the electorate with abuse of filibustering tactics over the last four years.

Also striking was the result in New Territories East. The pan democrat did regain the seat lost through disqualification of the previous incumbent, but the real eye-opener was the performance of the third party Livelihood First candidate Christine Fong Kwok Shan who captured almost 65,000 votes – a 15% share. The victorious Gary Fan Kwok Wai took less than half of the votes. This was a clear sign that many voters are looking for other options.

On Hong Kong Island, the winning margin was only 50:47, a far cry from the glory days when the democratic camp could count on support of around 60 per cent of the electorate.

So what should the democrats do to claw their way back? As a first step they must make a clean break with the pro-independence activists, and that includes the "self-determination" advocates if one option of their proposed referendum is an independent Hong Kong. One only has to read as far as Article One of the Basic Law to know that there is no prospect whatsoever of a future for our city separate from China. The delusion of those who think otherwise, however attractive they may seem as individuals at the personal level, needs to be confronted. This will take a combination of diplomacy and courage.

Secondly, the pan democratic camp needs to be far more selective in the issues on which it launches an all-out attack on the government. Many months after the community at large had accepted – even welcomed – the co-location arrangements at the high speed rail terminal in West Kowloon, some pan dem leaders were still banging on about how this would be the end of the world. It won’t. The next issue likely to stir them to fury while putting the electorate to sleep is the national anthem law. They need to accept that there is an anthem, there needs to be a local law to cover it and their focus should be on finding a smooth path to do so while finessing any minor wrinkles in an unhysterical way. Will they have the self-control to do this?

Similarly with the huge backlog of public works projects. Choose one or two where there is a real issue and hold the administration’s feet to the fire. Wave the rest through and let’s get Hong Kong back to work.

The cause of political reform remains an important one for the community, and one to which the administration needs to return soon. But it is not front of mind now for most ordinary people. They are more concerned with livelihood issues like the cost of housing, career prospects for their children and so on. The democrats need to go back to their knitting and focus on matters of concern to the grass roots. This is the area where they are strongest. The reason they went into politics in the first place, and fought for a more representative system of government, was to improve the circumstances of the poorer members of society. It is folly of the highest order to have allowed others to seize the initiative here.

The next priorities are to unify the camp better and to strengthen electioneering tactics. The primary system was a good idea for a by-election because there is only one candidate per seat. For the next general election, where this factor does not apply, there needs to be a proper carve-up of the different constituencies and discipline to adhere to the outcome. Some political leaders will inevitably miss out, but they need to swallow their pride and still get their supporters out to vote on the day for the agreed slate of candidates. And when it gets to the campaign itself, everyone has to get out into the streets and the housing estates and face the electorate squarely. Hong Kong voters want to look people in the eye and squeeze their shoulders to size them up. Barking at them through loudhailers is just not going to cut the mustard.

If they can do all this – and it is a big if – the pan democratic camp can regain support. They will also incidentally raise the level of public discourse, which will benefit all sides.