Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Parties Fail to Ride on China Discontent

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties failed to turn discontent with China and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying into more seats in the city’s most widely contested election, indicating economic concerns weighed more on voters.

Pro-democracy groups won 27 seats in the 70-member Legislative Council election, according to results out yesterday, similar to the proportion in the previous poll. Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho, who competed with Leung to be the city’s top official in March, said he will resign.

The election run-in was overshadowed by concerns about China’s growing influence as thousands of black-clad students and parents besieged the government headquarters to demand the scrapping of Chinese identity lessons. The debate failed to translate into gains for pro-democracy parties as a record wealth gap and surging property prices also preoccupied voters.

“Livelihood issues are competing against core values,” Dixon Sing, associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said by telephone. Voters were more concerned about economic issues and weren’t aware of the “magnitude of the threat” against values like human rights and democracy, he said.

Of the 70 seats, 40 were elected by popular votes, with the rest picked by representatives from industries including finance. Pro-democracy parties picked up 53 percent of the seats open for the public to vote in, down from 63 percent.

Ho Quits

Hong Kong is governed by a “One Country, Two Systems” policy, with its top leader picked by a member-committee comprising of billionaires, lawmakers and representatives from industries. Lawmakers in the Legislative Council are able to approve and debate bills, though they can’t form government.

China has promised to introduce universal suffrage by 2017, meaning Leung will be the last leader to be chosen by a committee. Pro-democracy parties have advocated for a quicker transition.

The Democratic Party, the biggest group among the pro-democracy parties, won six seats, down from eight.

“I have to accept full political responsibility,” Ho said in announcing his resignation yesterday. “Our party would certainly learn from this failure.”

Fewer Votes

Based on the popular turnout, pro-democracy parties won about 55 percent of the votes for the seats based on geography, down from about 59 percent in the 2008 poll, Sing said.

The debate about Hong Kong’s political freedom is taking place as its Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, surged from 0.43 in 1971 to a record 0.537 in 2011, according to government statistics. A reading of zero means income equality and one complete inequality.

Parties that support Leung, including the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions, added seats. Leung has pledged to narrow the wealth gap and make housing affordable.

“Pro-establishment parties have been very good at mobilizing supporters, and they have far more resources than pro-democracy parties,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

About 1.83 million voters cast their ballots, representing a turnout of 53 percent, the second highest since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Veto Power

Pro-democracy parties were able to retain one-third of the seats on the legislature, which means they can veto major laws including constitutional changes.

Dissatisfaction at the way the government deals with China has risen to the highest level in eight years, according to a survey by the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has tracked changes in the city since its return to China in 1997.

Leung had sought to allay growing public discontent with China by backing down from a plan to introduce Chinese national education classes, suspending a policy to allow more tourists from neighboring Shenzhen, and announcing a plan for the sale of homes built only for locals.

Home prices have soared by about 88 percent since the start of 2009, driven by record low-interest rates and purchases by mainland buyers. Chinese mothers taking up hospital beds and overcrowding because of an influx of tourists have also spurred discontent in Hong Kong.

The pro-democracy parties “would’ve had sheer disaster if it hadn’t been for the national education issue,” Michael DeGolyer, political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said. “They were too divided among themselves.”

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