Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has been locking horns over whether to hold internal ballots to decide which candidates to field for the Legislative Council elections in September, as commentators warned that splits could cost them seats.
Riding on the momentum of the anti-government protests that broke out last summer, the city’s opposition bloc crushed their pro-establishment rivals to take more than 80 per cent of the 452 seats in November’s district council elections.
The landslide victory has given the camp a confidence boost as it seeks to break its previous record of securing 29 of 70 seats in the city’s legislature.
But it has also sparked greater competition within the opposition bloc, with young independents planning to run after finding quick success in the district council polls.
Former lawmaker Au Nok-hin and legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who led the 2014 Occupy movement, have been struggling to get all members of the camp on board with the idea of primary elections since last month.
Au said some independents felt it would be unfair to put them up against candidates with access to resources from political parties.
“They think such a system favours candidates who are incumbent lawmakers and those with party backgrounds,” Au said.
So far, only those vying for the Kowloon East constituency have agreed to holding a primary, he added.
Half of the 70 lawmakers in Legco are directly elected from five geographic constituencies under a proportional representation system, which allows political parties and independents to submit tickets with several candidates.
After polling, the number of votes in a geographic constituency are then divided by the number of available seats to obtain a threshold.
Tickets with more votes than the threshold are allocated a seat first, with the first names on the list elected as lawmakers. The remaining seats are then allocated to tickets with the largest number of votes.
If the pro-democracy camp does not reduce the number of candidates heading into the September polls, Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok believes it could end up with a lower return than if it had a smaller pool of electoral hopefuls.
“The pro-democracy camp could get more votes than the pro-establishment camp but end up with fewer seats,” Ma said.
The professor said that is exactly how things played out in the 2016 polls, when nine tickets fielded by the pro-democracy camp in New Territories West saw their candidates win just four of the nine seats, despite taking 55 per cent of the vote.
In comparison, the pro-Beijing camp fielded six tickets, and grabbed the remaining five seats.
Critics attributed the results to poor coordination, leading to vote splitting among the nine pro-democracy candidates.
During a Legco by-election in 2018, Power for Democracy, a group responsible for coordinating campaign efforts within the pan-democratic bloc, organised a primary poll for candidates that involved telephone polls, physical voting and endorsement from groups in the camp.
To convince younger politicians to take part in the selection process, Au said the group will listen to independents and make changes to the primary system.
Yuen Long district councillor Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, who ran in the 2018 internal ballot, said a primary was unnecessary for the upcoming Legco election.
Sources in the pan-democratic camp said Cheung was likely to run in the District Council (Second) functional constituency – often referred to as “super seats”.
Millions of voters not registered in other functional constituencies, which elect representatives from different trade and professional sectors, are eligible to vote in the super seats, so named because those holding them have larger mandates than their colleagues.
All district councillors in Hong Kong can contest the five seats available in this functional constituency.
“I think it is easier to adopt a drop-out agreement, rather than holding primaries,” Cheung said, referring to candidates pulling out before polling day if they performed poorly in opinion polls.
In the 2016 Legco elections, some pan-democrats including Paul Zimmerman ended their campaign on polling day and urged their supporters to vote for their allies instead.
Cheung, who is part of an alliance of about 20 young independents, said the group had not decided whether to take part in any primary.
Michael Mo Kwan-tai, of the Tuen Mun District Council, ruled out doing so.
“There is no condition to hold a primary election among the camp, as not everyone will honour the results,” he said, adding he was considering running for a New Territories West seat.
In 2018, one candidate, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, did not follow through on his pledge to pull out of the by-election after being defeated in the pan-democrats’ primary.
Both Cheung and Mo said candidates with party backing would have the upper hand in the internal contests.
“If polling stations are involved, the results end up hingeing on party mobilisation,” Mo said.
Another former student leader expected to seek a “super seat”, Lester Shum, now a Tsuen Wan district councillor, said he was open to the idea of primary elections.
“But it depends on how many people are willing to participate,” Shum said.
“If only half of those running will take part it will be meaningless and will only generate more conflict.”