Just when the pan-dems looked to get clobbered in the upcoming District elections, the lead-in-water scandal gave them a shot at redemption and ruined the best plans of the government’s top political guns.
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the 2015 Clean Hong Kong Campaign at a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council on July 9, the strategy encompassed a two-pronged tactic aimed to bolster governance and give a shot to his sagging popularity in the last two years of his term.
First, he aims to demonstrate to the people that the government has walked the walk of focusing on economic and livelihood issues by rallying the people together for a non-political campaign in the post-political reform period. In view of the serious schisms in the society aggravated by the Occupy Central protests and the political reform debate, a government-people campaign could help moderate the political atmosphere.
Second, Leung believes the campaign could provide a platform for government allies to reach out to voters through the campaign activities. The two-month-long exercise, which was launched on August 1, coincides with the summer break. With the next District Council election set for November, this summer is the pre-election campaign period for political parties to stretch their legs for the election battles.
Clean water whoops
Against that background, it could not be more ironic and embarrassing that the tainted lead-in-water scare unfolded in June and gained momentum all summer, derailing the Clean Hong Kong campaign and helped little, if any, to re-set the governance agenda.
Worse, it has stoked fears among the pro-government camp that they might have to pay a price for the water scandal in the November election.
Rise of the District Council
Though seen as a low-tier structure with no real powers in district affairs, the 18 district councils have gained more importance in the city’s power game. Political parties holding more seats in district councils would no doubt be in a more advantageous position in the scramble for seats in geographical constituency battles in the Legislative Council, through name recognition, political bargaining chips and organisational capacity.
The pan-democratic camp and voters were deeply divided over tactics in the 79-day movement and the tussle over the 2017 chief executive universal suffrage blueprint. Specifically, many questioned whether organisers should have called for an earlier end of the occupation, and whether pan-dems should have “pocketed the deal.” Failure on both fronts meant the pan-democrats had expected a tough fight in the November election.
Their fears are not unfounded. With strong financial resources and district network, the pro-establishment camp has dominated the 18 district councils over the last decade. Of the present 412 elected district council seats, the pro-government forces control more than 300 seats. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong holds a total of 136 seats, or 30 per cent of all district seats.
Water a winner
But the pan-dems may have found their issue to improve their standing. The pan-dem’s’ leading role in pressuring the government to find out what went wrong in the city’s supply of clean water has won applauses in some quarters of the society. The Democratic Party, in particular, by conducting the original test and exposing this widespread problem, have made gains in popularity.
The Democratic Party’s show of power in uncovering the faults in the government’s water supply has had spillover effects, helping all pan-dems. It has helped deflate criticism against the pan-democrats for their non-cooperative approach in the legislature, in particular the filibustering by some radical democrats.
They are set to move a motion on the setting up of an inquiry into the water scandal under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance as soon as the new legislative year kicks off in October. The pan-dem legislators have already asked President Tsang Yok-sing to convene a special meeting at the earliest time to discuss their demand.
Pro-government forced to act – against government
Given the complexity and seriousness of the tainted water scandal, it is almost certain it will remain an issue from which the pan-democrats would seek to gain the maximum political mileage in the lead-up to the November election. It is even pushing the DAB and pro-government forces to put pressure on the government.
Government officials have grumbled privately some compensation demands made by pro-establishment lawmakers, such as a waiver of one-year rent for affected public housing tenants, are excessive.
The DAB even threatened to ‘sleep with the enemy’ and back the democrats’ call for a LegCo inquiry if the Government failed to form an independent panel to probe the water scare. Days after their call, Leung named a High Court judge and a former Ombudsman to lead an investigation.
Although the government move could give a convenient reason for the pro-government legislators to reject the idea of a LegCo inquiry, they will have to watch closely the development of the water scare in the few weeks. If public anger over the tainted water scare remains strong, they may have to renew their support of an inquiry to avoid losing votes in the November election.
Man proposes, lead-in-water disposes
With the tainted water saga in slow drip mode, the Clean Hong Kong Campaign has become a source of embarrassment for the Leung team. Almost three weeks after the campaign was launched, it has been largely forgotten, and dismissed as irrelevant as the water scandal continues to inflict damage on the government’s popularity.
As the district council elections approach, the lead-in-water scandal has thrown a lifeline to the pan-dems who discovered the issue and are making the most of it. The nature of the scandal has ruined the government’s best laid plans and even forced their most erstwhile allies to put pressure on the government so they can maintain their standing in the upcoming elections this fall. The unpredictability of politics is exactly what keeps politicians in the game, even after a terrible season. Seasons turn, after all, and political fortunes with them.