DC Elections Explained: The battle for the soul of the city

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This year’s district council elections are about more than bus stops and sidewalk repair. Invigorated by a new generation of post-Occupy politicians, the old school and new crews fight for the soul of Hong Kong. With 431 seats up for grabs and four political camps – comprising myriad parties as well as independents – knowing who to vote for can be perplexing.

District Councils polls, the perennially unloved underdogs of Hong Kong elections, are taking centre stage for  the battle for the city’s soul in 2015. Every four years , polls open to middling response – but that was before the Umbrella Movement. This year, on November 22, record turnout is expected as a record number of candidates sign up to represent the people.

This may seem odd given the nature of the issues that have driven the city over the past year. Constitutional reform, electoral procedures, and institutional integrity seem too lofty for the humble district council elections that determine where bus stops and footbridges go. However, an important shift in the city’s politics has seen a new generation of young people seek to get in the game.

The players

Indeed, the fighters of old causes, like advancing democracy, seem to have held back their enthusiasm for the district councils. The traditional pro-democratic forces will field their lowest candidate count in years. Localists have emerged from the Umbrella Movement, flooding the field with political neophytes. Disenchanted with the pan-dem forces, they have refused to cooperate with, and will run against, pan-dem candidates. Localists are, for the first time, linking big issues, like Chinese domination of Hong Kong, to local issues like the crowding of shopping areas by mainland daytrippers.

The pro-establishment forces seem to be more intent on presenting a unified face to take control of more seats. The various parties rarely run against each other, even where ancient enmity persists (for example, the Liberal Party and Business and Professionals Alliance (BPA)). There are even reports of the pro-establishment forces running candidates who do not declare their affiliation to pro-establishment community groups. They are attempting to put a neutral, unaffiliated, face in front of the public in a district that may not lean towards the Beijing friendly crowd.

Much of this springs from the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement. Young, impatient protesters who cut their teeth on organising there found they have a voice and are not content to let their toothless, in their opinion, elders speak for them. The pro-establishment forces, shocked at the organisational nous and vigour of the Umbrella Movement,  have found their encouragement and support from Beijing, via the Liaison Office and other channels, increased, leading to more candidates than ever being encouraged to run. Voter registration numbers may suggest were the real power lies; voter registration increases among the 66 to 70 age group are much higher at 18% than for the 18 to 20 age group, which saw a 5.1% increase. And the elderly tend to vote more conservatively. In Hong Kong, that means pro-establishment, and the pro-establishment camp has been more organised in registering friendly voters for  the upcoming elections.

The strategies

And Beijing’s friends play to win. The mass line theory (群眾路線) is a political strategy from the Marxist school that suggests political control at all levels is needed to maintain total control- even bus stops and local tree plantings. Finding candidates and running campaigns requires organisation, money and a machine – something the pro-establishment excels at. They have the muscle to push people to stand and the resources to support candidates in every riding.

By contrast, the pan-dems struggle to get candidates. Emily Lau, Chair of the Democratic Party, claims “It’s difficult to find good, hard-working people,” leading to up to 15% of districts being contested by only one candidate, almost always a pro-establishment figure. While they managed to win 103 of 412 seats in the last election (to the pro-establishment’s 299) they have only 95 candidates running this time, not all of whom will win. Also, resources are an issue – why run a campaign if you can’t do it right and win? And, if successful,the job is time consuming, not financially well rewarded, and you’re often unknown to most of your constituents.

District Councilors may appear invisible to many disconnected citizens, but play an important part in the lives of concerned, switched-on citizens. They are champions for those who find themselves victims of shoddy government services or ignored by powers that be. They give voice to local discontent. They can build support bases for themselves and their party that could turn into organisational support for LegCo elections and maybe, someday, proper CE elections.

So for people who actually run the city, this grassroots level of politics matter. For those who are dispossessed, Councilors can be powerful champions. They are the footsoldiers in the battle for the soul of the city.