The District Council elections due to take place on 24 November are shaping up to be the most significant for a generation. The results will be closely scrutinized in SAR government headquarters at Tamar, the liaison office in Western, and in the Central People’s Government in Beijing. Depending on the outcome, they may have a significant impact on the political life expectancy of chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngoh.
To understand why, we need to go back to the results of the last set of elections in 2015. They took place in the aftermath of the Occupy movement and were a resounding success for pro administration forces. Over 1.4 million people voted (a turnout rate of 47%) for the 431 members (for the first time, all elected) and ended with government friendly parties controlling all 18 district councils. By virtue of securing a majority of members in both the New Territories and the urban area, the same forces were able to choose from among themselves all 117 representatives on the election committee which elected the chief executive in 2017.
There is a fair prospect the results will not be nearly as administration-friendly this time around. Hong Kong’s underlying problem issues (slow progress of political reform; wide and burgeoning wealth gap with particular reference to property prices; perceived increase in mainlandisation of society and the economy) have remained largely unchanged since 2015. The big new factor, of course, is the proposal to overhaul Hong Kong’s extradition regime and the furore this generated. Although the amendment bill itself is now being withdrawn, the passions thus stirred still run hot.
One result has been an upsurge in the number of persons putting their names on the electoral register for the first time. When rolls were opened earlier this year, over 386,000 individuals registered as new voters, the biggest annual gain since at least 2003. Particularly striking was the number of new voters in the 18 – 35 years age bracket, which surged by 12 per cent. It seems likely that a large part of this increase is related to the ongoing protests. The increase will lead to an additional 700 – 1000 new voters per constituency. This factor by itself could be enough to change the result in marginal seats. If it is allied to an upsurge in turnout because of the heightened political interest, say to over 50 per cent, then we could be in for quite an abrupt turnaround in fortunes. It is possible to envisage a good number of the 117 election committee places going to pan democratic forces for the first time. Certainly the DAB and other pro-government parties are alert to this danger. They feel their prospects will suffer because they stood by the government’s extradition reform proposals right up until the last minute, and then were not even consulted on the decision to “suspend” the bill. Some have even murmured about the possibility of delaying the elections though that seems unlikely.
There are several other factors at play which could have an impact on turnout and voter intentions. One will be the decisions by individual returning officers on which candidates to approve and which to disqualify. If high profile names – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, for example – are allowed to run then this is likely to generate huge interest and stir turnout, but disqualification would also be controversial and could have the same effect.
Traditionally voters at the district level have been quite conservative and do not normally approve of the obstructionist tactics often employed by the pan democrats such as the disruption to last week’s policy address. And there is a particular aversion to violence. However these are not normal times. Polling undertaken by the Chinese University’s media faculty on behalf of another newspaper showed over 80 per cent of respondents supported the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to examine all aspects of the extradition saga. The government keeps ruling the option out, so this may count against those parties perceived as being its supporters. Another striking finding was that over 70 per cent did not trust the police. So the repeated appeals for restoration of law and order are not having their usual effect either.
One of the most notable aspects of public sentiment in recent times has been the toleration by so many ordinary members of the public of the violence and vandalism perpetrated by the protesters. There have been many instances of residents booing the police, or opening doors to facilitate protesters avoiding arrest. I queried an election coordinator of the pan democratic forces for an explanation on the reasons for this striking departure from normal public attitude. His interpretation was that the government ignored the peaceful march on 9 June, but the students stepped in to save the day by blockading the LegCo building on 12 June to prevent enactment of the extradition bill. Many people thought police use of force on that day was excessive. “The students saved us then, we have an obligation to protect them now”.
It cannot be confirmed that his reading of the public mood is correct, or, even if it is, that it will endure until election day. As Harold Wilson famously observed more than 50 years ago “A week in politics is a long time” and we have almost five of them to go. There is always scope for a major incident to swing public opinion at the last minute – what the Americans call the “ October surprise” because by law the presidential election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Given the recent escalation of violence, it is regrettably possible to envisage the death of a police officer, or a protester, or even a passerby, or a high-profile suicide.
No doubt there will be many other opinion polls in coming weeks to try to monitor shifting public mood. But on 24 November we will have the only poll that really matters: the one at the ballot box.