What to Know About Hong Kong’s Legislative Elections

Localist political group Youngspiration candidate Yau Wai-ching campaigns during the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on 4 September 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Localist political group Youngspiration candidate Yau Wai-ching campaigns during the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on 4 September 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

It has been a tumultuous recent period in Hong Kong politics. Following the 79-day ‘occupy’ movement in autumn 2014 and the subsequent rejection of a political reform package in 2015, Sunday’s elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) represented an important moment for the territory. Tensions have been growing between Hong Kong and both the central government in Beijing and mainland Chinese economic and social influence in Hong Kong.

Understanding Hong Kong’s complex electoral system is important to interpreting the results.  Half of LegCo’s 70 seats come from geographical constituencies, with the other 35 from functional constituencies: 30 of these cover professional, social, and labour groups (for a list see here) with relatively small electorates, and five are selected by the rest of the electorate from district councilors using a list system with proportional representation. This means that each registered voter has both a geographical and functional constituency vote.

Now that the results are in, here are five things Sunday’s vote revealed:

  1. More complex and intense politics in Hong Kong will further challenge Beijing and the Hong Kong government. This first electoral test of the popular mood since 2012 saw a turnout of 58% (2.2 million voters), well up on the previous election. It also revealed the growing fragmentation and polarization of Hong Kong politics, with small new parties and independents winning seats (the proportional representation list system in geographical constituencies also encourages multiple lists – some 212 candidates stood across 84 lists, up from 67 in the 2012 elections).
  2. Establishment figures retain a reduced majority in the legislature, with 40 of the 70 seats, down from 43. This majority comes courtesy of the functional constituencies, which tend to be dominated by establishment and business figures who can be relied on to vote with the government (the government has no political party affiliation). However the pro-establishment camp is further away from the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional reform, while the opposition retains its veto power. Challenges in executive−legislature relations will grow given the fragmentation of positions and adept filibustering by opposition legislators.
  3. The opposition has become both more fragmented and more radical. The majority of popular votes went to candidate lists opposing the government. In the district council ‘super seats’, they took 58% of the vote, still broadly in line with the 60% the ‘pan-democrats’ have traditionally garnered. However the nature of this opposition has changed in a number of ways from the previous LegCo. Eight of the geographical seats went to new, more radical candidates, inspired by the ‘occupy’ movement of 2014 – three of these are on record as backing some form of ‘self determination’ for Hong Kong. And many familiar figures from the ‘pan-democrat’ opposition either retired or lost their seats as younger figures came to prominence.
  4. The indigenous movement is challenging Hong Kong’s constitutional settlement. Hong Kong has entered a new political era since the ‘occupy’ movement. The indigenous movement will now be represented in LegCo, even following the controversial rejection of nominations for some candidates. Beijing’s concern about the nascent independence sentiment in Hong Kong means that the central government is more inclined to try to interfere in Hong Kong politics, but the consistent push back from much of Hong Kong society will continue to demonstrate the limits of the central government’s ability to influence Hong Kong politics and society.
  5. Expect to see more protests as we head towards 2017. The focus of Hong Kong politics will now move to the selection of the next Chief Executive in March 2017. The incumbent, CY Leung, is not widely popular and looks likely to be challenged. Given the failure of the reform package in 2015, the selection will be carried out by a small-circle committee of 1,200 mainly pro-establishment members, and the lack of credibility for this process means that protests are likely through next spring. Whoever is selected, Hong Kong will continue to face fundamental challenges of growing local resistance to the central government and antipathy to mainland China among much of the population, alongside growing Chinese economic influence in the city.

Tim Summers teaches at the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and consults commercially on China.

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