In what was the most closely fought election in Hong Kong’s history, a record turnout on Sunday, an electorate politicized by the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and last-minute pan-democratic strategy changes enabled the opposition to thwart hopes of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to produce a legislature with a two-thirds pro-government majority, which would strip the pan-democrats of their ability to veto constitutional changes.
The election was marked by several stunning upsets. Social activists who back localism, if not independence, have won a bloc of seats, thereby emerging as a new political force, generally aligned with the traditional pan-democrats but very much with their own thinking and approaches vis-à-vis the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.
As new members of the pan-democratic camp, they will influence its positioning and strategy, especially since the biggest vote-getter in the election was social activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who amassed over 84,000 votes but had attracted little attention from the mainstream media.
Another surprise was Nathan Law, a student leader in the 2014 protest movement, who also won a seat. At 23, he is the youngest person ever elected into the legislature. Contrary to general expectations, Ricky Wong, a media entrepreneur, failed to garner a seat.
The election of people like Eddie Chu and Nathan Law enabled the pan-democrats to win 19 of the 35 seats in the geographical constituency, which means that they will be able to block motions, bills and amendments to government bills proposed by other pro-establishment lawmakers.
Half of the seats of 70 legislators are elected in five geographical constituencies and the rest by functional constituencies, such as business and professional bodies. The former has always been dominated by pan-democrats and the latter by pro-establishment legislators.
The pro-establishment camp not only failed to win a two-thirds majority of all seats, it also failed to win a majority of geographical seats which would have deprived the pan-democrats of the ability to block motions and amendments to government bills proposed by other legislators.
However, the legislature to be seated next month is very different from its predecessors. Gone are the leading lights of the past, such as Emily Lau and Albert Ho, former chairmen of the Democratic Party, who chose to retire. Gone, too, are such veteran legislators as Lee Cheuk-yan, Cyd Ho and the radical Raymond Wong, famed for throwing bananas and other objects in the legislature, all of whom lost their seats.
Instead, there is a new crop of legislators in their 20s and 30s, including localists who by law are not allowed to support independence but who champion related ideas such as self-determination.
Thus, there is likely to be greater dissension within the ranks of pan-democrats and greater confrontation between legislators and the government. The gridlock in executive-legislative relations may well worsen.
This was an election with many “firsts,” including the first time that the Electoral Affairs Commission had required certain candidates to declare in writing that they did not support Hong Kong independence. In the end, six candidates were disqualified on the ground of support for independence.
Three days before the election, a rolling poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong suggested that the highly fragmented pan-democratic camp was likely to lose heavily. Subsequently, seven pan-democratic candidates announced an end to campaigning in an attempt to consolidate support for the camp overall.
This worked to some extent, but still a number of veteran politicians lost because votes for pan-democrats were not evenly distributed.
The election on Sunday was not to determine who would run Hong Kong. The term of Chief Executive Leung won’t expire until next June, and it is uncertain if he is going to be allowed by the Chinese government to have a second term. Technically, a 1,200-member Election Committee will make that choice in March but, since most members of the committee are loyal to Beijing, they will in effect endorse Beijing’s chosen candidate, who will then be formally appointed by the Chinese government.
But Sunday’s election is likely to influence Beijing’s decision whether to allow the current Chief Executive a second term. It will depend on Beijing’s interpretation of the election’s outcome. If Beijing feels the Hong Kong government did well by excluding independence advocates from running, it may extend the Chief Executive’s term. But if Beijing feels that he did not go far enough to block localists from winning seats, then his fate may well be different.
Between now and March next year, Beijing will decide if it wants a new man taking charge of Hong Kong.