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In Hong Kong Election, Democrats Gain Despite Pro-Beijing Rebound

  • Ivan Broadhead

People queue as they wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Hong Kong on September 9, 2012.

People queue as they wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Hong Kong on September 9, 2012.

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parties have emerged as the victors in Sunday’s local elections. After a tumultuous few weeks in Hong Kong politics that saw rolling anti-government protests, the divided pan-democratic movement struggled to capitalize on its grassroots support.

The build-up to Sunday’s election was a tense affair, with tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside Hong Kong government headquarters just hours before polling stations opened.

Demonstrators demanded the repeal of a mandatory “moral and national education” curriculum aimed at encouraging Chinese patriotism in Hong Kong schools.

Saturday night, Leung Chun Ying relented. The head of the Hong Kong government, rocked by 10 days of protests and hunger strikes, announced the classes would not be compulsory.

“The introduction of moral and national education, specified in the policy that my government inherited, is not something of our making. As soon as we realized there were opposing views in the community, I quickly dealt with the issue,” said Leung.

As election results were announced Monday, it appeared Leung’s decision to backtrack on the controversial plan had paid political dividends.

The largest party in the legislature - the pro-Beijing DAB - gained three directly-elected district seats. Pan-democratic parties won 18 district-based seats, one less than 2008.

Pro-Beijing electoral system

In part, this may have been because of the idiosyncrasies of an electoral system that is weighted in favor of pro-Beijing parties, suggests Professor Ma Ngok of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"The pro-democracy camp got an upper hand in overall vote share, but actually the gap has been diminishing. So this election shows the pro-establishment camp has a very effective way of dividing the vote. In the end they [won] more seats than their vote deserves," said Ma.

Analysts say the four pro-democracy parties appeared to suffer at the polls from in-fighting and the lack of a cohesive political strategy.

Nonetheless, taking into account functional constituency seats - voted on by minority interest, typically pro-Beijing professional groups - the pan democrats expanded their voting base beyond 24 seats in the newly enlarged 70-seat council.

Professor Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University said those results suggest the public continues to view the democrats as best placed to push the government in key policy areas, particularly on poverty alleviation.

“The one clear winner out of this race so far are people you might classify as pro-labor or pro-poor," said DeGolyer. "You really get a very strong block now in which the wealth gap is a number one live issue. And that is a big shift [in Hong Kong.]”

Tilting toward labor, democracy

Hong Kong has the most pronounced rich-poor divide of any developed city in the world. Residents have become increasingly vocal about wealthy Chinese visitors driving up living costs and putting pressure on local infrastructures like transportation and health services.

Improving the minimum wage and the availability of affordable housing are key issues among many in the city. There also is the long-term goal among democrats of universal suffrage and loosening Beijing’s control over the city.

Margaret Ng is a respected democratic lawmaker who retired from politics at this election.

“You will find very few people in Hong Kong of Chinese origin who do not regard themselves as Chinese," said Ng. "Our roots are very deep. But we want the China we believe in to be democratic, open and to respect freedoms.”

China’s National People’s Congress indicated in 2007 that universal suffrage could be introduced in Hong Kong before elections for the city’s next leader in 2017.

But as that date approaches, there are concerns the Hong Kong government will backtrack on the plan, passing laws to prevent future councils from being elected entirely on the principle of one-person, one-vote.

While pan-democrat parties were disappointed in their results Monday, they won enough seats to preserve a critical voting minority that allows them to block any efforts to stop the move towards full democracy.

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