Prepare for upsets in LegCo elections: Timothy Peirson-Smith

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Timothy Peirson-Smith looks at the upcoming elections. Populism, vote-splitting, get-out-the-vote capabilities and other complexities make for interesting times.

image1 (1)Timothy Peirson-Smith is the founder of Executive Counsel and an astute observer of the Hong Kong political scene and chairman of the Business Policy Unit of The British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Harbour Times gets his quick take on the state of LegCo affairs as we head into the final days of the election.

HT: What can we learn from the global trends that are driving things like Brexit and populism in democratic elections?

Peirson-Smith: There is a global trend of questioning the status quo, rejecting traditional “establishment” thinking, and “political elites” who are seen increasingly as being unrepresentative of the people. Across Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Asia we are witnessing political party leaders rising from both the political far left and right. While their policies may differ greatly, often some key messages cut across their political divides. Scepticism towards globalisation and anti-establishment sentiment is growing, and Hong Kong is of no exception, and political parties across all ideologies are capitalising on this.

As such, when looking into our elections here in Hong Kong, it would be foolish to write off the rise in popularity for localist parties as simply a political quirk. That when people go to the polls they will return to the norm and vote for establishment parties. Lest we forget many were adamant that Donald Trump would not win the Republican Presidential Primary; that Bernie Sanders would be no real threat to Hillary Clinton; that the people the United Kingdom would not vote to leave the EU.


HT: How does social media play into the election?

Peirson-Smith: Worth noting are the localist parties, namely Civic Passion and Youngspiration, currently polling at 6% and 5%, respectively. These parties run online platforms that traditional establishment parties cannot rival in terms of scale and popularity. The crucial test for the localist candidates is if they are able to convert their online support into votes at the polls.


HT: Online action is only one dimension of campaigning. Do ground games matter, and if so, who’s the best at it?

Peirson-Smith: Registering voters, mobilising constituents, and ensuring people vote are crucial for gaining Legislative Council seats. The Pro-Beijing camp, especially DAB historically, is especially well known for having a strong ground game when it comes to voter turnout. Arguably, far beyond their campaign capacity, Pan-Democratic parties sent out 33 lists to all geographical constituencies and for super seats, compared to a more manageable 21 lists from Pro-Beijing parties.


HT: Is there risk of vote splitting among the old and new anti-Beijing factions?

Peirson-Smith: Ferocious competition emerging externally from Beijing and the localists, and from within the party, might impede the Pan-Democrats from claiming a one-third minority and their ability to block political reform proposals and filibuster bans. However, as we saw in the 2015 by-election, undecided voters were spurred to vote for the Pan-Democratic candidate to maintain the status quo in the Council. Voters face the dilemma that if they vote to change the current makeup of the Council things will deteriorate. As such we may likely see a repeat of 2015 with swing voters looking to maintain the status quo.

In July 2016, six candidates, all from localist parties, received emails from the returning officers stating that their nominations were “invalid”. The resulting media attention and protests could lead to increased votes for localist parties as a protest vote. However, there is a risk that the localist and Pan-Democrats voters split the anti-Beijing vote and this could result in more Pro-Beijing seats being won.


HT: What is your final take on the outcome of these complex elections?

Peirson-Smith: In past elections, Pan-Democrats have won more votes while Pro-Beijing parties won more seats owing to their dominance in functional constituencies and their more effective voting strategy in geographical constituencies. In the US Presidential Primaries and Brexit, voters translated their discontent with their administrations into surprising outcomes, and the implications for such ‘protest voting’ in Hong Kong in September should not be underestimated.

With an unprecedented number of uncertainties this year and greater competition than ever for all Council seats, we will likely see some upsets and a small number of new and more radical characters in the new term of Legislative Council. What remains to be seen is if the current stagnant and adversarial nature of the Council, which serves neither the public nor the business community, improves as a result. For that we will have to wait and see.