In between the omnipresent traditional red scrolls – or fai chun – in the windows of local shops and minibuses now beginning to yellow, several campaign posters featuring aspirants eyeing for legislative seats in Hong Kong stand out.
Despite the faces now competing with fai chun for attention, Hong Kong is witnessing one of its quietest elections in years as voters head to the polling stations on Sunday to fill in four vacancies in the Legislative Council.
Media coverage of the by-election – which comes just weeks after the Lunar New Year and amid China’s annual parliamentary sessions – is limited. No media outfit so far has commissioned any polls to track the popularity of the candidates.
The city’s biggest free-to-air broadcaster, TVB, has ditched its usual practice of holding election forums for candidates to cross swords.
Debate among friends and families over the by-election is also more subdued, according to voters.
The cool reaction seems a surprising and sudden plummeting of the political mercury. Just six weeks ago, a storm erupted after the government barred young activist Agnes Chow Ting from running in the Hong Kong Island constituency on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, advocates self-determination for the city.
By-election rivals on Hong Kong Island urge ‘safeguarding the rule of law’ … but whose way will win votes?
The election ban – slammed as political vetting that has eroded the city’s high degree of autonomy from China – made international headlines, with some expecting it to arouse sympathy and yield protest votes for the pro-democracy bloc.
“My friends are considered to be into politics,” social worker Rebecca Lam Wai-men, 28, told the Post.
“But when I discussed the by-election with them, many did not realise polling day is so near. They have a feeling that the election has been rather sudden, and there is no mood in the community with no one around them discussing it.”
The Sunday by-election is to fill four of the six seats vacated by pro-democracy lawmakers who were disqualified last year over improper oath-taking.
Some 2.1 million registered voters will decide the winners of the seats vacated by Demosisto’s Nathan Law Kwun-chung in Hong Kong Island, Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang in Kowloon West and New Territories East geographical constituencies respectively.
More than 7,600 voters in the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape functional constituency will choose someone to fill the fourth seat, once held by Edward Yiu Chung-yim, who is now vying to make a comeback via Kowloon West.
Two ousted lawmakers, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Lau Siu-lai, have filed an appeal against their disqualifications.
Despite the quiet, the polls, the first since Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor took over as the city’s leader last July, are widely seen as a de facto referendum on Hongkongers’ stance on the administration’s move to ban aspirants deemed to have unacceptable political beliefs.
Lack of surprises
One of the reasons behind the subdued atmosphere is a sense of the predictability of the outcome, observers said. Pan-democrats have never lost a single Legco by-election whenever a first-past-the-post voting system is adopted.
The bloc, which over the years has enjoyed around 60 per cent of total vote share despite a gradual slide, usually gains an upper hand as long as it is not riven by infighting.
In one of the most iconic by-elections back in 2007, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, endorsed by the pro-democracy front, beat ex-security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, backed by the conservatives, by 12 percentage points in Hong Kong Island.
In 2016, the race did tighten in the New Territories East by-election, when the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu found himself sandwiched between his conservative opponent Holden Chow Ho-ding and Edward Leung Tin-kei, the poster boy of the city’s independence movement.
After several feisty rounds of live TV debates over whether advocating independence was wise, Yeung won the race with a razor-thin margin.
But no such drama is evident this year. A rerun of another three-horse race among pan-democrats, localists and the pro-establishment camp did not pan out after two localist aspirants, James Chan Kwok-keung and Ventus Lau Wing-hong, were banned from running for their earlier pro-independence remarks.
The pro-democracy bloc, despite some hiccups, also held a primary months ahead of the by-election to pick their slate to avoid infighting that would hand over the advantage to their opponents. Former NeoDemocrat lawmaker Gary Fan Kwok-wai is running against his key pro-establishment rival Bill Tang Ka-piu in New Territories East, while ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu is in a head-to-head contest with Vincent Cheng Wing-shun in Kowloon West.
Also running in New Territories East are centrist Nelson Wong Sing-chi, moderate conservative Christine Fong Kwok-shan, self-styled politician Estella Chan Yuk-ngor and pro-family activist Joyce Chiu Pui-yuk. Independent candidate Jonathan Tsoi Tung-chau, 33, a physiotherapist, is also running in Kowloon West.
All eyes are also on Hong Kong Island, where former Democratic Party member Au Nok-hin is the backup candidate of Chow to challenge New People’s Party Judy Chan Ka-pui.
Frustration and indifference
But the cool atmosphere is deceptive. Beneath the calm, frustration is mounting among some young pro-democracy supporters.
Raymond Chan, a 33-year-old market researcher in New Territories East, said he had no plan to head to the polling station this Sunday.
“There is no single candidate I would like to vote for this time,” said Chan, who supported Dr Horace Chin Wan-kan, dubbed the “godfather of localism”, in the 2016 Legco election.
He also cast doubt on the meaning of by-elections when “elected lawmakers could be disqualified by the authorities”.
Social worker Rebecca Lam also witnessed such a sense of indifference, saying half of her friends who used to protest with her during and after the Occupy movement in 2014 no longer talked about politics, with some planning to move abroad for good.
“The 2016 elections were the first Legco polls after the Occupy movement. We thought that if street protests did not work, perhaps we could carry on our struggle in the legislature,” she said. “But many people were left disappointed over the past few years.”
Some of her friends believed it would be no big deal even if the bloc lost the seat, Lam added.
“The disqualification saga could make people angry, but it could also lead to frustration,” said Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok.
The overall turnout of Legco direct elections has gradually increased over the past decade, from 45.2 per cent in 2008, to 53.1 per cent in 2012 and 58.3 per cent two years ago.
The turnout of the 2016 by-election in New Territories East stood at 46.2 per cent.
While Ma cautions against comparing general election turnout with by-election numbers, analysts agree voters this year are less enthusiastic than in the last by-election in New Territories East.
The 2016 by-election happened just after the Mong Kok riot, which had cast the spotlight on Hong Kong independence as some of its alleged key instigators were advocates.
It had also triggered an intense ideological debate among liberal voters over whether the critical seat should go to a traditional pan-democrat favouring peaceful protest or a no-holds-barred localist caught in the Mong Kok fracas, Ma said.
Another factor which made the New Territories East by-election two years ago unique was that the seat in question could have tilted the political landscape in the legislature, paving the way for Beijing loyalists to tighten Legco’s rule book.
The Civic Party’s Yeung had warned voters that his defeat would have given the pro-establishment camp control of the legislature to make such amendments happen, which would take away his bloc’s right to filibuster. This was the only power pan-democrats had to block unpopular new laws.
But the game changed with the disqualification of six pro-democracy lawmakers. The pro-establishment camp took advantage of the pan-democrats’ weakened ranks to push through the changes last December.
“The pan-democrats can no longer appeal to voters with this argument now,” Ma noted.
Another political observer, Dr Chung Kim-wah, of Polytechnic University, said the low turnout could put pan-democrats’ odds at risk, given their rivals are more skilful at mobilising voters.
In New Territories East, the pro-democracy bloc received 55 per cent of the votes in the 2012 Legco election, which saw a turnout of 53.9 percent. Its vote share jumped to 57.6 per cent in the 2016 general poll, on a turnout of more than 60 per cent.
But the camp’s vote share slipped to 52.6 per cent in the by-election that year, on a much lower turnout of 46.2 per cent. But such a correlation was not reflected in all constituencies. In Kowloon West, the bloc won 61.7 per cent of the votes in 2012, on a 53.9 per cent turnout. Although turnout in the constituency rose to 58.1 per cent in 2016, the camp’s vote share shrunk to 57.2 per cent.
In the Hong Kong Island constituency – possibly the closest race of the four seats – two front runners, Au Nok-hin and Judy Chan, are making last-ditch efforts to drum up support a week ahead of Sunday’s polls. The other two candidates are Ng Dick-hay, an IT officer, and Edward Yum Liang-hsien, a former activist who is seeking a comeback.
New People’s Party’s Chan was wary of saying voters were indifferent as she argued the democrats had been waging an extensive campaign online.
“Young people nowadays do not really study the leaflets they receive on streets. Most of them are looking at the matter on smartphones,” she said.
Still, Chan was confident she could win over moderate voters in the constituency.
In the 2016 Legco election, the pro-democracy camp won 50.8 per cent of Hong Kong Island votes, while businessman Ricky Wong Wai-kay – seen as representing middle-of-the-road voters – received 9 per cent and the pro-establishment camp 40 per cent.
“The whole by-election was triggered by the oath-taking saga and a lot of political disputes have emerged in recent years with livelihood issues being ignored,” Chan, a Southern district councillor, said. “They had hoped to resolve conflict through rational means.”
Derek Yuen Mi-chang, policy research director of the New People’s Party, said many voters in the Hong Kong Island constituency were intellectuals, and most qualified to get over the “hate vote” myth. They would think twice before casting their votes.
“What’s next after casting a ‘hate vote’? It would only get back to the norm,” Yuen, formerly with the Path of Democracy, a middle-of-the-road think tank founded by executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah, said.
Au, also a Southern district councillor, said the absence of rolling polls had added uncertainty to the race. “Moderate voters used to decide who to vote for after studying the polls which could at least offer them a glimpse of the trend,” he said.
While he called on Hongkongers to cast “protest votes” to show their disapproval of Beijing’s hawkish approach, Au conceded the city’s legislature was a lost cause for the bloc.
The resources, platform and higher profile generated by the seat – rather than a lawmaker’s power in the chamber – are key, said Au, who planned to use them on communities rather than in Legco if he won.
Au’s campaign team has been setting up street booths in the heart of Causeway Bay – one of the busiest shopping hubs in Hong Kong – almost every night well into the late hours, even waving at passengers on double-decker buses en route home.
Occupy student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a core member of Au’s team, told the Post at a midnight booth: “The election is not only about win or lose. It is also a way to quantify public opinion over the government’s bid to disqualify candidates.”
And to some young people, the by-election is an energy booster.
“If the pro-democracy camp wins the race, it is somehow a restoration of confidence for those who are deeply frustrated,” said social worker Lam. “Just like in MMA [mixed martial arts], at least you can knock out your rival with a strong punch after being repeatedly kicked.”