For months, fierce political campaigns, vicious personal attacks and sporadic allegations of electoral irregularities had filled the airwaves and fuelled social media discourse in Hong Kong. One candidate was forced to drop out and flee to the UK after receiving threats of physical harm.
That is because the stakes had never been higher.
On Sunday, in the first election in Hong Kong since the umbrella movement was spawned in 2014, more than 2 million citizens – nearly 60% of all registered voters – went to the polls. Forty seats on the legislative council, or Legco, the region’s parliament, were up for grabs by candidates representing a wide spectrum of political parties. They ranged from diehard Beijing loyalists to pro-democracy veterans and younger, more radical newcomers calling for autonomy and even independence from China.
As the count continued overnight, it appeared that the new kids on the block would have the last laugh. Six fresh faces had peeled enough votes from their more established counterparts within the opposition camp to become a force to be reckoned with in a fast-changing political landscape.
One of them, Nathan Law, had protested alongside Joshua Wong during the umbrella movement. Earlier this year, the two founded a political party, Demosisto, running on a platform of self-determination and self-governance. Voters saw Law gradually reinvent himself from a street activist to a serious politician. On Monday morning, he became the youngest person to win a Legco seat in Hong Kong’s history.
There were others, too: a university lecturer who was heavily involved in the umbrella movement; an environmentalist seeking to reform the city’s land development; a pair of young activists from a year-old party called Youngspiration; and a firebrand from the controversial Civic Passion group, known for its localist, anti-mainland rhetoric.
The pack of six won largely at the expense of the traditional pan-democratic parties, who are regarded by many young voters as too passive and conservative to tackle the modern political reality. The Labour party, an established name in the pro-democracy camp, lost two of its three seats. Other so-called “pan-dems”, such as the Neo Democrats and the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, failed to secure a single seat and now face political extinction.
While pundits debate the shifting dynamics the new Legco will bring, one thing is certain: a generational handover within the opposition has taken place, whether the pan-dems like it or not.
The shift in the tectonic plates of local politics is widely considered a direct consequence of Beijing’s increasing intervention in Hong Kong, including the ever-tightening grip on the city’s freedom of expression, as well as other civil liberties and local affairs. Recent happenings such as the disappearances of booksellers and a high-profile management reshuffling at the Independent Commission Against Corruption have provoked a response-in-kind from the opposition. If Beijing has raised the stakes, then Hong Kong voters appear to have seen the bet and raised it.
It means the next Legco session promises more explosive battles between the opposition and the government, led by the unpopular chief executive, CY Leung. At the same time, the cracks within the pro-democracy camp will likely bring more confrontation between the pan-dem old-timers and the vocal youth. All that is expected to engender deeper fractures and further polarisation inside and outside of Legco, culminating in yet another political showdown when it comes to the chief executive’s re-election bid next spring.
For now, the opposition is celebrating, happy to have retained the one-third voting bloc necessary to veto critical bills that require super-majority approval; examples have included an anti-subversion law and electoral changes favourable to the ruling elite.
As the cheers die down, however, the vicious attacks among the opposition will resume, as the lines continue to blur between friends and foes, allies and adversaries.
Jason Y Ng is a Hong Kong-based columnist and author of Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered