Shrinking Umbrellas: The District Council Elections and Party Fragmentation



The increase in the number of political parties in this year’s District Council election is likely to be repeated in the Legislative Council (LegCo) election next year. This can be primarily attributed to the usage of the District Council as a training ground for the LegCo and secondarily attributed to public dissatisfaction after the Occupy protests with mainstream political parties across the political spectrum.

This year’s Hong Kong District Council elections, held on November 22, were remarkable for several reasons. First, 47% of all eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, a record high.[1] Second, the elections featured 935 validly nominated candidates, another record high.[2] Third, a host of new political parties participated in the election. Many of these parties, the so-called “Umbrella Soldiers,” were formed after the Occupy protests.[3] All in all, over 37 parties submitted candidate nominations.[4]

It is tempting to characterise the high number of candidates and parties competing for seats and the high voter turnout as phenomena brought on by Occupy Central.[5] According to the South China Morning Post, 42 candidates claimed to come from new groups emerging from Occupy or were inspired by the protests.[6] Ming Pao reported that 384 of the candidates in the election claimed to be independent, which would constitute 40.37% of all candidates.[7] This marks an increase of 3.8% from the 2011 elections, in which 36.5% of all candidates claimed to be independent. Thus, it can be argued that many of these new candidates and parties have been motivated by the aftermath of the Occupy protests to promote the pro-democracy movement by forming new groups or running for election as independents.

However, while the Umbrella Movement may have spurred on many democracy supporters to fight for office, this trend has not increased the actual size of the mainstream pan-democratic candidate pool. The four largest parties participating in the co-ordinating mechanism amongst the pan-democratic groups (the Democratic Party, the Civic Party, the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, and the Neo Democrats) submitted 47 fewer candidates this year when compared to the 2011 District Council elections. The Democratic Party justified the reduction in candidates (from their party at least) as the consequence of a new “elite candidate system.”[8] For whatever reason, the total number of candidates participating in the co-ordinating mechanism fell from 236 in 2011 to 213 in 2015.[9] At least six of the new Occupy-inspired parties refused to participate in the pan-democratic co-ordination scheme.[10] While it is true that Occupy helped to increase the number of candidates, this has not necessarily been advantageous for mainstream pan-democrat parties since many of the new candidates are neutral independents or have otherwise decided not to work together with the pan-democrats.

Unlike the mainstream pan-democratic camp, the pro-establishment bloc has strengthened its candidate pool this year. The pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions submitted 28 more candidates as compared to 2011, while another pro-Beijing party, the New People’s Party, fielded 30 more candidates. A relatively new pro-establishment party, the Business and Professionals Alliance, contributed 15 candidates. In total, the number of candidates from pro-establishment parties increased by 61.[11] Therefore, candidate growth in 2015 can be attributed to increases in the number of pro-establishment and independent candidates, while the number of co-ordinating pan-democratic candidates has fallen.[12]

To fully understand why so many candidates and parties participated in the District Council elections, it is necessary first to analyse the District Council’s role in the formation of the LegCo. Since 1999, LegCo elections have been held one year after the District Council elections. This means that newly elected District Councillors are ideally situated to persuade supporters from their ridings to vote for a candidate list in the LegCo.[13] Indeed, statistical analysis conducted by Wong Hok-wui from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) showed that the pan-democratic camp can increase its vote share in the LegCo elections within a District Council constituency by about five percentage points if it can win a District Council seat. Claiming a District Council seat also diminishes the vote share of the pro-establishment in that constituency by 3.4 percentage points. Meanwhile, the pro-establishment camp can decrease the vote share in the LegCo elections of the pan-democratic camp by about four percentage points if it can capture a District Council seat. There was no stated impact on the pro-establishment’s vote share in the LegCo elections after a pro-establishment candidate won a particular District Council riding.[14]

Why is the impact from winning a District Council seat on the LegCo elections disproportionately limited to the pan-democratic camp? According to Wong, by winning a District Council seat, pro-establishment forces undermine their pan-democrat rivals in the LegCo by “uprooting their local support network.” Pan-democrats depend on these networks to provide votes, donations, and manpower to assist with their campaigns. This is especially the case since the pro-establishment camp has a superior resource advantage over pro-democracy rivals and is better able to develop and maintain these networks over time. As such, Wong cites the “aggressive expansion” of the pro-establishment in the District Council as the primary reason for their political success in the LegCo. By “driving out the opposition” from the District Council, where pro-establishment parties have held a majority of seats since 1999, pro-establishment parties ensure victory in the LegCo, where they have also held a majority since 1998.

Wong’s paper explains why the pro-establishment camp’s electoral success at the District Council level is correlated with their longstanding success in the LegCo. But his study does not explain why so many parties from both camps contest the District Council elections in the first place. This step requires recognition of the LegCo’s proportional representation (PR) electoral system. The PR system favours small parties and multiparty dynamics, because small parties can win representation proportionate to their amount of votes.[15] Also, the usage of the “Hare Quota”[16] and the “Largest Remainder”[17] in the Hong Kong system makes it difficult for large parties to win extra seats. Thus, both the pan-democrat and the pro-establishment camps have found it advantageous to split into many factions.

Although the District Council is not elected using PR, it is heavily affected by tactical considerations endemic to the LegCo’s PR format. According to Professor Lam Wai-man of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), this is because the District Council is treated as a “training place for political parties to groom their members to gain experience and skills.” Successfully groomed candidates will be better prepared to fight for LegCo seats. This close relationship in electoral strategy at the District Council and LegCo level belies the Council’s intended function as a purely advisory body providing guidance on neighbourhood concerns.

While District Councillors still have the primary function of giving advice on community issues, the District Council itself is also used as a laboratory for parties in the LegCo to test their popularity and acceptability in various regions so they can fine-tune their strategy in the subsequent LegCo election. Therefore, the District Council doubles as a “political platform” for parties to disseminate their views and ideology, in a manner superseding its intended purpose as an entity focused on local community concerns. The fact that nearly every party participating in this year’s elections, excluding new parties formed after the Occupy Movement, is affiliated with a party currently represented in the LegCo attests to the function of the District Council elections as a “try-out” for the “big leagues.”

What is the significance, then, of the wave of new parties and independent candidates running in the District Council elections? Their participation as candidates helps to explain another, more recent factor behind the proliferation of multiple parties in Hong Kong politics, which is the growing dissatisfaction amongst the population with both the pro-establishment and the pan-democrat camps. The fact that so many Hong Kong people felt compelled to take to the streets last year to call for electoral reform demonstrates that there are strong disagreements within the pan-democrat’s support base over the viability of reform through the legislative process. The Occupy protests and related controversies also suggest that many Hongkongers across the political spectrum do not feel adequately represented by incumbent parties. If existing groups are perceived as being inadequate representatives of the population, it is reasonable to expect that new parties and fresh faces will continue to emerge.

Recent polling data from HKU’s Public Opinion Programme (POP) corroborates the theory that both the pan-democrats and the pro-establishment are losing their support amongst the populace.[18] In September 2015, HKU POP conducted a survey on Hong Kong people’s views on political orientations. The results showed that 41.9% of those surveyed did not identify themselves as pan-democrats or pro-establishment, but rather as “moderates” or those with a “middle ground” political view. Only 11.4% identified with the pro-establishment, while 28.4% identified with the pan-democrats. Moreover, 75% of pro-establishment supporters and 64% of pan-democrat supporters felt that a camp of political moderates was needed in Hong Kong to bridge the political divide.

Another public opinion survey conducted by HKU showed that none of the top ten political parties in Hong Kong currently possess more than 46% support amongst the survey participants.[19] In fact, no party from either the pro-establishment or the pan-democrats has garnered over 50% approval since June 2014, representing a steady decrease in support from June 2014 to October 2015 both for individual political parties and for the top five political parties as a whole. These statistics suggest that a significant portion of the population is unhappy with the status quo of bipartisanship and blames both sides for contributing to the state of affairs that resulted in the violence and conflict of the previous year.

Sharing an umbrella can be difficult if too many seek cover from the rain. After the Occupy protests and subsequent events such as the botched pro-establishment walkout,[20] it has become apparent that the “umbrellas” encompassing the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps are failing to include all of the diverse views of the Hong Kong people. This contention is supported by the results from the District Council election. Two candidates from Occupy-inspired groups (Wong Chi-ken from Kowloon East Community and Kwong Po-yin from Youngspiration) were able to win seats, while several first-time independent candidates who reportedly participated in the Occupy movement scored surprising victories over incumbent pro-establishment heavyweights.[21] Ming Pao reported that eight “Umbrella Soldier” candidates were victorious in the elections, representing 2% of the entire District Council.[22]

Of course, eight seats out of 431 do not necessarily indicate a sea change in Hong Kong politics. According to Ming Pao, the proportions of seats in the District Council held by the various political factions remained approximately the same, with pro-establishment groups adding to their seat proportion by 2% and the pan-democrats increasing their seat proportion by 4%.[23] Yet given the fact that the PR system in the LegCo already promotes the existence of multiple parties in the LegCo and the District Council, it is probable that more and more parties will participate in the Hong Kong elections in the near future. After all, what’s the point of sharing an umbrella if you can just unfurl your own?

 

 

1 Gary Cheung, Jeffie Lam, Joyce Ng, and Stuart Lau, Record turnout for Hong Kong’s district council elections; two pan-democratic big guns out, three new pro-Occupy candidates win, South China Morning Post, November 23, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1881914/polarised-voters-turn-out-record-numbers-hong-kongs-district .
2 951 nomination forms for District Council Ordinary Election received by deadline, Registration and Electoral Office, October 15, 2015, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201510/15/P201510150742.htm.
3 Ng Kang-Chung, Youngspiration aims to be “Third power” in Hong Kong politics, South China Morning Post, March 30, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1750442/youngspiration-aims-be-third-power-hong-kong-politics.
4 Introduction to Candidates, District Council Elections 2015, Registration and Electoral Office, 2015, http://www.elections.gov.hk/dc2015/eng/intro_to_can.html.
5 This is because of the fact that the District Council’s members are returned by the “First-past-the-post” (FPTP) system. Under FPTP, each elector can only vote for one candidate per constituency, and the candidate who receives the largest number of votes will win. This method necessarily involves a great deal of “wasted votes” since all candidates who fall short of the winner will have no representation in the government. Normally, FPTP tends to reduce the number of viable political parties, because voters often decline to vote for smaller parties for fear of wasting their votes. So the presence of 935 candidates and dozens of parties this year seems to go against normal FPTP dynamics.
6 Joyce Ng, Forecasting a change: “umbrella soldiers” challenge old guard in Hong Kong’s district council elections, South China Morning Post, October 22, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1870682/warpath-umbrella-soldiers-challenge-old-guard-hong-kongs.
7 88人報稱「獨立」 活躍建制組織無申報 新社聯撐161人區選 建制次多, Ming Pao Daily, October 26, 2015, http://news.mingpao.com/pns/dailynews/web_tc/article/20151026/s00001/1445795408764.
8 Ng Kang-Chung, Hong Kong’s Democratic Party will put up fewer candidates in forthcoming district council polls, South China Morning Post, August 25, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1852234/hong-kongs-democratic-party-will-put-fewer-candidates.
9 泛民公布213人區選推薦名單, Ming Pao Daily, October 26, 2015, http://indepth.mingpao.com/php/passage.php?seriesno=11&titleno=4.
10 Ibid 6.
11 Introduction to Candidates, District Council Elections 2015, Registration and Electoral Office, 2015, http://www.elections.gov.hk/dc2015/eng/intro_to_can.html.
12 It is likely, of course, that many “independent” candidates are actually sympathetic to one side. For this reason, statistics underestimate the true size of the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps. Also, some independents participated in the co-ordinating scheme. Still, the fact remains that pro-democracy fervour from Occupy cannot fully explain the growth in candidates since a significant portion of new candidates this year were from pro-establishment parties or are independents without any reference to the Umbrella movement in their platforms.
13 Stan Hok-Wui Wong, Resource disparity and multi-level elections in competitive authoritarian regimes: regression discontinuity evidence from Hong Kong, 216, Electoral Studies 33 (2014), August 1, 2013.
14 The study did not explain why this was the case, but it can be inferred that by reducing the vote share of the pan-democratic camp in the LegCo election the pro-establishment’s chances of winning a LegCo seat increase, at least in the absence of a popular independent candidate.
15 Lam Wai-Man, Contemporary Hong Kong Government and Politics: Expanded Second Edition, 115, Hong Kong University Press, July 2012.
16 The "Hare Quota" refers to a type of electoral method used as a part of the proportional representation system. Under the Hare Quota, any candidate who reaches the number of votes established by the quota formula is automatically elected. The formula is equivalent to the total number of votes cast for all candidates in a given constituency divided by the total number of seats in the constituency. Any votes that a candidate receives in excess of the quota are transferred to the remaining candidates on their candidate list. For this reason it is difficult for large parties to win more than one seat per riding when the Hare quota is used. As a result, they often split into smaller parties or lists.
17 The largest remainder system is another type of electoral system under proportional representation which can be used in conjunction with the Hare quota. Under the largest remainder system, after all candidates meeting the Hare quota have been awarded seats, the remaining seats are allocated to candidate lists with the largest remaining number of excess votes, in descending order, until no more seats are left.
18 Chung Ting-Yiu and Pang Ka-Lai, Path of Democracy Public Opinion Survey 2015, Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme, October 22, 2015, https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/report/pdpos2015/Report.pdf .
19 Popularity of Political Groups 19-23/10/2015, Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme, October 23, 2015, https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/pgrating/datatables/datatable69.html .
20 Joyce Ng, Jeffie Lam and Tony Cheung, Hong Kong lawmakers explain botched walkout that left reform plan with just 8 votes of support, South China Morning Post, June 18, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1823428/hong-kong-lawmakers-explain-botched-walkout-left-reform-plan?page=all.
21 Stuart Lau, Out with the old: Two big-name pan-democrats ousted in tight district council election races, South China Morning Post, November 23, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1881920/out-old-two-big-name-pan-democrats-ousted-tight-district.
22 【短片:區選總結】建制泛民各有星級議員落選 新同盟成大贏家, Ming Pao, November 23, 2015, http://news.mingpao.com/ins/instantnews/web_tc/article/20151123/s00001/1448240209060 .
23 Ibid.