By Michael Lipin
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has taken a narrow lead in a legislative council election that represents a major test for the autonomous Chinese territory’s new pro-Beijing government.
Official results released early Monday show pro-democracy candidates won 18 of the 35 legislative seats directly elected by voters in Hong Kong’s geographical constituencies. Sixteen of the remaining seats went to pro-Beijing and pro-business candidates allied to Hong Kong’s government, and one went to an independent.
Turnout in the geographic constituencies was 53 percent, or 1.8 million voters, up sharply from 45 percent in the last election in 2008.
Re-elected pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan described the results as “very disappointing.” Pro-democracy candidates competed for seats in multiple party lists that reflected divisions within the movement, resulting in a splitting of pro-democracy votes that helped pro-establishment candidates to win.
Speaking to a local radio station Monday, Lee said the pro-democracy movement saw an improvement in its total share of the vote. But, he said the pro-establishment movement had a more effective strategy to attract voters to its various party lists and “distribute” votes among its candidates.
Analysts had expected a strong showing for the pro-democracy camp after it led a series of mass protests against the government of Leung Chun-ying, who took office in July. The protests drew on public anger toward Leung’s handling of several issues, including a government proposal to require schools to teach Chinese patriotism classes within the next few years.
Many protesters criticized the classes as an attempt to brainwash children into supporting China’s ruling Communist Party – an allegation the government denied. Leung backed down on Saturday, a day before the election, saying the patriotism classes would no longer be compulsory for local schools.
The strong showing by pro-establishment lawmakers in the partial election results may ease some of the pressure on Leung. He also has faced growing public discontent with an influx of mainland Chinese residents and visitors who have put strains on Hong Kong’s hospitals and driven up property prices.
Under a new system introduced for Sunday’s election, all Hong Kong voters were able to cast a second ballot to fill the other half of the legislature’s 70 seats. Vote counting was still under way early Monday for those seats, known as “functional constituencies.”
The vast majority of voters cast their second ballots to fill five legislative seats in a single, territory-wide constituency. A small minority of voters belonging to community and professional groups cast their second ballots to fill the legislature’s remaining 30 seats. Most candidates representing those groups tend to be pro-government.
Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under an agreement making it a semi-autonomous territory with much broader rights and freedoms than in mainland China. Beijing also has promised to allow Hong Kong to become a full democracy, with residents directly-electing their leader in 2017 and all of their lawmakers in 2020.
But, pro-democracy lawmakers fear Beijing will pressure Hong Kong into adopting a 2017 election system that excludes chief executive candidates deemed anti-Communist or unpatriotic by Chinese leaders.