Hong Kong election: a victory for the Umbrella Movement

220px-chuhoidikComing after many months of rising political tensions on all sides, and continued erosion of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, this year’s legislative elections were perceived as crucial to the city’s future.

Participation was massive, reaching an unprecedented level of 58%, especially in the last hours as voters tried to allocate votes strategically, leading to long queues inside voting offices after closing time and delays in starting the vote count. This figure alone shows that Hongkongers have not lost faith in the democratic system and still believe that free elections are the best way to resist encroachments on the Basic Law.

The results were a resounding victory for the pro-democracy camp, which not only was able to retain its majority of directly elected seats, but even increased it by one to 19 out of 35. It also picked up an additional seat in the trade-based functional constituency seats (in the architecture and town planning sector), and held on to its majority of three out of five “super seats”, elected by all voters among  district councillors, bringing its share of the functional constituency seats to 10 out of 35. This means that the democrats can easily hold on to their veto power (one third of votes or 24 seats) over constitutional reform bills, even if a few maverick lawmakers decide to abstain. Holding on to a simple majority of geographical seats also means the pro-establishment camp cannot change the rules of procedure to stop filibustering, for example. Together with the pro-business Liberal Party’s 4 seats and the single independent Medical sector lawmaker, there could conceivably be an “anti-CY” camp of 34 seats out of 70 in LegCo, making the passage of national security legislation under article 23 (which only requires a simple majority) very difficult for the government.

The results were also a significant achievement for the Umbrella Movement camp. 6 seats were won by groups who emerged in the wake of the movement, including Youngspiration (2), Demosisto (Nathan Law), won by young candidates in their twenties, and older social movement activists, Eddie Chu Hoi-Dick (photo above), who first became involved in the heritage preservation movement over a decade ago, and Lau Siu-lai, a sociologist who lectured on democracy during the Umbrella Movement. Not one, but two new generations have entered LegCo simultaneously. The fact that the impetus of the social movement has translated into parliamentary gains is a considerable achievement for the Umbrella Camp, given the criticism they have faced from the establishment, as well as a victory for democracy. It is at least as significant as the 5 seats won by the post-Sunflower NPP in Taiwan, despite the lack of coordination with mainstream pan-democrats in the Hong Kong context.

While the mainstream pan-democratic parties held their previous positions, the pro-democracy camp has gone through a profound generational renewal, with most veteran lawmakers voted out, including foundational figures like Cyd Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan from the Labour Party. Iconic activist Long Hair (Leung Kwok-hung) barely held on to his seat by a few hundred votes.  However, this development means that the pro-democracy camp now has a strong basis of charismatic politicians under 40 who can lead for many years, including lawyers Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung in the Civic Party and former ICAC investigator Lam Cheuk-ting and romance writer Kwong Chun-yu in the Democratic Party.

While a few of the new post-Umbrella lawmakers support independence or self-determination, the more radical nativists were mostly defeated, including the eccentric Chin Wan, with anti-mainlander group Civic Passion getting only one candidate elected, Cheng Chung-Tai. In fact, the pan-democrats may be less reliant on splinter groups than in the last legislature. It remains to be seen whether the opposition camp can set aside their differences about the status of Hong Kong and focus on a shared agenda of advancing democracy. It also remains to be seen whether the SAR government will continue to pour oil on the fire of independence by, for example, disqualifying some of the elected candidates.

Although the results are generally positive for the pro-establishment parties, for the Chief Executive and the SAR government, who took a strong stance against the Umbrella Movement, insisting it was “illegal” (although courts have overwhelming belied this assertion), and called to constituents to “vote out” the pro-democracy camp, the results can be seen as a slap in the face. It may be difficult for the Chief Executive to convince the central government that he is able to lead the territory for another five-year term after such a resounding victory by both pro-democracy and pro-Umbrella forces.

As usual, the campaign was confusing, and media coverage was unsystematic, especially coverage of the various opinion polls. The campaign was also studded with incidents, including the disqualification of several candidates on grounds that most lawyers believe are extremely flimsy, alleged threats that led a candidate to withdraw, as well as a strategy in the pro-Beijing camp of playing up the threat of independence. The government also leaked pictures of riot police preparing for election day, and the central counting station at Asia World Expo was heavily manned with police and private security, artifically creating an atmosphere of tension. It remains to be seen how the courts will deal with the legal challenges: if a judicial review succeeds, re-votes may be necessary in up to 4 out of 5 districts.