Hong Kong by-election a litmus test for city's democratic aspirations

Hong Kong by-election a litmus test for city's democratic aspirations

Hong Kong rally Au Nok-hin
On Mar 3, Au Nok-hin’s main campaign rally attracted fewer than 500 people. (Photo: Wei Du) 

HONG KONG: It is an election that wasn’t supposed to happen, and it involves a pro-democracy candidate who wasn’t supposed to run. 

Still, Hong Kongers will be heading to the polls on Sunday (Mar 11) for the Legislative Council by-election, to fill four seats which were left vacant by members who were disqualified by the court over the 2016 oath-taking controversy.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, headlined by little-known activist Au Nok-hin, is hoping to recapture all four seats, three of which are directly elected. 

While the pan-democrats have traditionally had an upper hand in such contests, the political twists and turns over the past two years have proved it increasingly difficult to rally support from the people.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping now consolidating power by scrapping the presidential term limit, analysts said any further democratisation in Hong Kong would be hard to imagine.

“The constitutional changes in Beijing has further demonstrated the authoritarian bent of President Xi," said Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"If anything, it suggests the tough stance towards Hong Kong will continue.”


Whether Hong Kongers respond by empowering the opposition to further their democratic aspirations, or turn to Beijing-friendly parties in exchange for stability is the question politicians and analysts alike are seeking answers to from the upcoming by-election.

The city’s last Legislative Council election was held less than two years ago. 

But soon after the elected took their seats, the government challenged six opposition lawmakers in court for botching their oaths. Bound by Beijing’s controversial interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, local courts disqualified all of them. 

Two of the lawmakers are still appealing the decision, so only four seats will be filled on Sunday. 

In the run-up to the polls, the election commission barred another prominent young activist, Agnes Chow, from contesting. 

In a widely decried decision, the returning officer said she believed the self-determination Ms Chow’s party Demosisto seeks for Hong Kong is incompatible with China’s sovereignty over the city.

The pro-democracy camp hastily put forward Au Nok-hin to replace Ms Chow. 

Au Nok-hin
Au Nok-hin replaced Agnes Chow to contest in the by-election. (Photo: Wei Du) 

While Mr Au lacks the name recognition, pan-democrats hope the series of events that lead to the polls would stoke enough anger among Hong Kongers that more voters would come on their side.

“The results would be a projection of public opinion that (when) we say no to the disqualification, we say no to interference from Beijing," said Nathan Law, one of the disqualified legislators.

"I think that’s a very powerful message, so you should definitely come out and vote,” he added. 

No comprehensive opinion poll has been conducted for the by-election. An online poll put all four pro-democracy candidates ahead of their government-friendly opponents, but its reliability is questionable at best.


More worrying for pan-democrats is their waning ability to rally support from beyond their core supporters. On Mar 3, the main campaign rally for Mr Au was attended by a slew of pro-democracy grandees, but attracted fewer than 500 people.

“You have to admit the pro-democracy movement is now at low tide,” said political analyst Joseph Cheng,

“People wonder what the movement can achieve given the tremendous political pressure from Beijing. Naturally, there are Hong Kong people who would like to enjoy economic prosperity and less political confrontation, and these people would not vote for the pan-democrats.”

A low voter turnout would hurt the opposition, because the pro-government camp has been better at getting their supporters to the polls. 

Even if it doesn’t cost them any seats, pan-democrats run the risk of seeing their share of popular vote fall. 

In past elections, they have been able to secure 55 per cent of votes in direct elections, which they see as a source of legitimacy.

“This voting share symbolises that the majority of Hong Kong people desire checks and balances, and they would like the pro-democracy movement to provide it,” said Prof Cheng. 

However, there are signs that the pro-democracy movement might have taken the checks and balances too far in its recent battles.

Last July, radical lawmakers in the camp, angry at their colleagues’ disqualification, tried to hold up a widely supported funding boost for public schools. 

Now, they are vowing to frustrate a government plan to allow mainland immigration and police officers into a Hong Kong train terminal. The plan was designed so that passengers on a high-speed train to China could clear Hong Kong and mainland customs together. 

Though legally questionable, the plan enjoys public support, according to a poll conducted by Hong Kong University.

“As the opposition, you can’t pick too many fights, otherwise you get protest fatigue," said Prof Cheng.

Government-friendly politicians are eager to capitalise on that fatigue as they appeal to the more pragmatic side of Hong Kongers. This includes promising better transport links with mainland China and tighter economic ties to boost growth.

Pan-democrats hope the majority of Hong Kongers would not buy into the trade-off. 

At the campaign rally last week, Martin Lee, the 80-year-old founder of the Democratic Party, said to the crowd: “I want to remind you all, among the 1.4 billion Chinese people, on Mar 11, we are the only few who have a vote.”

Source: CNA/ad