the 5.16 hong kong by-elections: how democracy failed even before the poll booths opened

Why, Hong Kong, why? Why can’t you be like your other Asian neighbours like Taiwan, South Korea or Thailand, and stand up for your rights? Why is going shopping or eating more important than going to the ballot box and showing your support for universal suffrage? Frankly, I find the apathy shown in Hong Kong towards embracing this important political change quite pathetic, but at the same time, it’s really quite undestandable and I cannot blame them for it. Let’s look into why this is the case.

Hong Kong held Legislative Council (Legco) by-elections on 16 May 2010 in all the electoral regions following the resignation of five pro-democratic legislators. All five were re-elected to very little fanfare, in what I believe was the biggest farce in Hong Kong politics to date.

The current status

A little background first.  Beijing’s current stance is for a gradual transition to universal suffrage in 2017. The Legco elections in 2012 will be conducted in the same manner of committee nomination as has been the case since 1997. Pro-democratic groups are demanding that the 2012 Legco elections be conducted in a one person, one vote policy. Beijing has so far not reacted, but that has not stopped the pro-democracy groups from putting up a fight. A fight that in my opinion has been wrongly strategised considering the mistakes made in the past.

2003: the beginning

The 1 July 2003 protest

As much as I empathise their fight for a complete transition to universal suffrage, pro-democracy groups have little to show for their efforts. They disappointingly failed to capitalise on public sentiment after the 2003 march, when on 1 July 2003, more than half a million people rallied for civil liberties (regarding Article 23 of the Basic Law, a separate issue, but unifying nonetheless). The Chief Executive at the time, Tung Chee Hwa resigned amdist the storm.

Pro-democracy groups recognised that public sentiment was where they wanted it to be: reverberating with echoes of dissent against Beijing. Riding on this wave, when electoral reforms were on the legislative agenda in 2005 with Beijing’s support, pro-democracy groups took the extremely hardline stance and strictly rejected the reforms. It was an all-or-nothing approach. That approach failed miserably. After the failed reform, talk of any further reform died and so did public sentiment. It was a mistake to have moved against any reform at that time. It was Beijing 1, democracy 0, when clearly it could have been the other way round.

Electoral reforms were taken off the agenda until late 2009, more than five years after the 2003 march. The cost was five years of what could have been gradual progress towards universal suffrage. It begs the question: were the pro-democracy campaigners really working for the greater good of Hong Kong? Whatever the answer, the city cannot afford to make any future mistakes of this magnitude.

2010: where we are now

Now in 2010, with the reform package to be voted upon next month and no apparent shift in feeling between the two bulls, five pro-democracy legislators from Legco decided to resign to force by-elections. The by-elections were even dubbed “referendums” on democracy, because the power would be given back to the people to elect their legislators. The theory was that if the resigned legislators were re-elected, then that was an obvious plus for democracy in Hong Kong. That was indeed the theory. In practice though, democracy had failed Hong Kong even before people went to the polls.

5.16's record low voter turnout: 15%

China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office strongly condemned the actions of the five legislators as a “blatant challenge” to China’s authority. Some Chinese officials even tried to deem the by-election unconstitutional, and demanded the government to reject the resignations. That did not happen. What did happen was that the establishment parties decided not to contest the by-elections, effectively ridding the voting public of the “referendum” showdown that was the theory behind the whole exercise. There could be no war with just the one party. That was when the farce began. Then it continued on the day, when even the Chief Executive and his cabinet members’ decided not to vote. The most important people opted out of voting. What does that say to the constituent community? What a farce.

By avoiding confrontation, China did narrowly avoid entering into a political storm of no return. Not surprisingly, the inability for the voting public to choose Beijing v Hong Kong in the so called “referendum” had a disasterous impact upon voting rates. Nonetheless, voting rates were seen as the last indicator of public sentiment. A large turnout suggesting wide voter acknowledgment of the need for change, and a low turnout agreeing with the pace of Beijing. At ~15%, this by-election was a bitter disappointment for pro-democracy officials. Previous legislative elections had voting rates of close to 50%.

The future implications

All five were re-elected. The lesson to be learnt here is that despite being avid supporters of universal suffrage, Hong Kong people will tend to be non-confrontational in their approach. For most, it makes no difference if they are able to vote for their Chief Executive. Many would think that there are wider problems that the government should concentrate on, and this issue can take its natural course along side. This sentiment gives moderate democratic supporters more leverage to negotiate on achieving universal suffrage at the gradual pace that Beijing wants. There will be mounting pressure on Beijing to grant concessions on this front to avoid any rekindling of 2003 sentiment.

Most importantly of all, the pro-democracy parties must now change their strategy. The days of locking horns with Beijing are long gone. Playing stubborn only further delays implementation and ultimately, Hong Kong will be the one that suffers. One cannot run if they have not mastered walking.

(Sources: Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, The Standard HK)

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