Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council Election: A Tectonic Shift in HK Politics?

Photo source: Time

Citation: Hak Yin Li, “Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council Election: A tectonic shift in HK politics?”, International Public Policy Review, Sep 6, 2016.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) Election was held on September 4, 2016, and it has several important implications for Hong Kong politics. First, the turnout rate was 58.28 percent, which was the highest after the handover. Second, some localists won in different geographical constituencies, breaking the traditional dominance of the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy parties. Third, some veteran and experienced legislators were overwhelmed by young candidates who did not have much local network or resources. These all suggest that Hong Kong people would like to change the status-quo by having new political forces and young persons to monitor the government.

High Turnout Rate

Political apathy was a term once used to describe Hong Kong people, but the turnout rate of the 2016 LegCo election suggests that Hong Kong people’s political attitudes have changed significantly. Compared with previous LegCo elections, the change in the turnout rate was quite high. In the first LegCo election after the handover in 1998, pro-democracy parties successfully boosted the turnout rate since they refused to join the Provisional LegCo, which was composed and manged by pro-Beijing forces for transitional purposes. Right before the LegCo election in 2004, Hong Kong’s economy was greatly affected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the controversial debate on the Article 23 legislation, which was an anti-subversion law that many pro-democracy forces regarded as a tool to limit Hong Kong people’s freedom. Hong Kong’s political atmosphere has become increasingly tense and confrontational since 2010 as a result of stagnation in political reforms such as the quest for universal suffrage for all legislators and the Chief Executive, as well as the government’s proposal on national education before the 2012 LegCo election. Thereafter, Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement, as well as the rise of localism have all stirred up people’s awareness of Hong Kong politics. Indeed, Table 1 shows that it was not only the turnout rate, but also the number of registered voters that have risen steadily after the handover.

The suspension of campaigning by some candidates might have also boosted the turnout rate. The Liberal Party’s Chow Wing Kan stopped all campaigning suddenly on August 25 after claiming that he had been threatened by another candidate’s supporters. Since there was no withdrawal mechanism in for the LegCo election, Chow’s name still appeared on the ballot. Nevertheless, Chow’s sudden move increased Hong Kong people’s attention on the LegCo election.

Other candidates also suspended their campaigns a few days before the election after realizing they had no chance to win according to the polls, and they urged their supporters to vote for other candidates who had similar values and policy suggestions. These candidates were: Zimmerman Paulus Johannes (independent), Chui Chi Kin (independent), Wu Sui Shan (Labor Party), and Clarice Cheung Wai Ching (independent). A similar situation happened in the District Council Functional Constituency, with Sumly Chan Yuen Sum (Civic Party), Kalvin Ho Kai Ming (Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood – ADPL), and Kwan Wing Yip (Neo Democrats) suspending their campaigns.

Candidates’ suspension of campaigning had never happened before in Hong Kong, but this might have helped voters figure out who had a higher chance of winning and who needed more votes to pass the threshold, especially when there were so many candidates in this election. When the picture became clearer, this might have encouraged those who had not yet made a choice to cast their votes. As the suspension of campaigns were all announced by pro-democracy or independent candidates, the pro-Beijing political parties criticized the suspensions as disrespectful to voters and even questioned if it was an electoral tactic to upset the pro-Beijing parties’ campaigns.

In addition, the pro-democracy scholar Benny Tai’s “Thunder Go” election plan might also have brought out the voters. Initially, “Thunder Go” aimed at coordinating the pro-democracy parties and forces to avoid direct competition in some constituencies, but this was not well-received by the pro-democracy forces. “Thunder Go” then focused on strategic voting. By analyzing the election polls, “Thunder Go” listed out a day before the election the pro-democracy candidates who were regarded as being at risk, and asked the pro-democracy supporters to vote accordingly. This might have helped to draw out some voters and boost the turnout rate; however, some pro-democracy parties have complained about the possibility of distortions in the voting result.

A Tectonic Shift in HK Politics?

Hong Kong’s LegCo elections have traditionally been dominated by the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy parties, but the rise of localism has upset the status quo. There were 6 localists who won the election: Nathan Law Kwun Chung (Demosistō), Lau Siu Lai (independent), Yau Wai Ching (Youngspiration), Sixtus Leung Chung Hang (Youngspiration), Eddie Chu Hoi Dick (independent) and Cheng Chung Tai (Civic Passion). There are some commonalities among them. First, they are all new faces to LegCo and this was their first time running in the LegCo election. It was very difficult for them to challenge some incumbents. Second, these localists do not hide their support for Hong Kong’s independence or national self-determination. Third, they do not belong to the pro-democracy camp, and they have attempted to differentiate themselves from the established political parties and forces.

Perhaps it is too early to say whether the localists’ 6 seats will be able to make a huge difference in the LegCo, since there are 35 seats in geographical constituencies, and another 35 seats in functional constituencies. However, the localists have earned a great number of votes and no one should underestimate their influence. For example, Eddie Chu Hoi Dick received 84,121 votes. This was not only the highest in his own constituency, New Territories West, but also the highest among all the geographical constituencies. Another localist, Nathan Law Kwun Chung, got 50,818 votes, which was the second highest in Hong Kong Island, only less than Regina Ip Lau Suk Yee’s (New People’s Party) 60,760 votes. The remaining localists acquired significant number of votes in their constituencies; some of their votes were even greater than those of some veteran democrats, except Yau Wai Ching who merely secured 20,643 votes for the last seat in Kowloon West. Although the localists’ seats are limited, they represent Hong Kong people’s interests to a certain extent.

Also, the rise of localism in the LegCo suggests that the voting patterns and the political culture of Hong Kong people are changing. In the 1980s, grassroots politics were first developed in Hong Kong’s District Board (now District Council) elections. Political parties worked in their constituencies for a long time to build up intimate relations between the candidates and voters through various case work and activities. Such local networks were very important since the LegCo constituencies were composed of numerous small District Council constituencies. Pro-Beijing and pro-democracy parties’ District Councillors were considered as agents who could mobilize local support for candidates for the LegCo elections. Obviously, the localists did not rely on such traditional practices, simply because they did not have any local networks, and as most of them emerged only after the Umbrella Movement, they have not had years or decades to cultivate relationships in the constituencies. Eddie Chu was more well-known and experienced than the other localists due to his social and environmental campaigns since 2010, but his election campaign was mainly supported by volunteers rather than a sound local network.

Thus, popular support for localism is not about networks or resources, but rather their ideas, values, or even their new faces in Hong Kong politics. There have been similar but limited cases where Hong Kong people voted for candidates who had not cultivated networks in the constituencies, for example, Longhair Leung Kwok Hung and Wong Yuk Man, who emphasized political struggle and radical means to challenge the government. But it seems that localists are even more “radical” as they are supportive of Hong Kong’s self-determination, and this has inevitably undermined support for Longhair Leung and Wong Yuk Man. More importantly, the localists are new but young and energetic while Longhair Leung and Wong Yuk Man are no longer new faces in the LegCo. Nathan Law Kwun Chung is only 23 years old and he is the youngest Hong Kong legislator in history. In New Territories East, Youngspriation’s Sixtus Leung Chung Hang got more votes than Longhair Leung, while Yau Wai Ching beat Wong Yuk Man in Kowloon West by only 424 votes for the last seat.

The decline of traditional pro-democracy parties and leaders in this election has disappointed many people. The ADPL did not win any seat in the LegCo, and even its leader Frederick Fung Kin Kee who served in the LegCo for decades lost the election. Similarly, Lee Cheuk Yan, a prominent democrat of the Labor Party, received only 30,149 votes in New Territories West where he had worked the constituency’s ground since 1998. It was probably the localist Eddie Chu who drawn away the votes which weakened Lee’s chances. Another Labor Party candidate, Cyd Ho Sau Lan, suffered the same fate.

This is not to say that only ideas, values, and new faces can draw voters’ support. The pro-Beijing parties and the Democratic Party still emphasized their long-term relationships with voters as well as local networks. But it seems that more and more voters are willing to cast their ballots for young candidates with a vision. Another interpretation is that Hong Kong people want something new in the LegCo. Apart from the localists’ self-determination stand, it is believed that Eddie Chu’s criticisms of the government’s environmental policy and the linkage between the government and developers on land use are representative of the concerns of Hong Kong people.


The rise of localism in the LegCo election is indeed a big surprise to many Hong Kong people and political analysts, and it could become the third political force. So does it mean that the pro-Beijing parties have suffered? Compared with the previous LegCo’s geographical constituency election, the pro-Beijing parties lost only 1 seat this election and won 16 in total, but the pro-democracy parties lost 5 seats in this election and won 13 in total. The localists attracted some pro-democracy supporters to their side and they won 6 seats in total. If the pro-democracy parties and localists can cooperate, they will have 19 votes in geographical constituencies, which will make them the majority and allow them to veto bills proposed and supported by the pro-Beijing parties. This is indeed not good news to the current government, as filibusters will probably appear again in the LegCo. The situation of the functional constituencies is the opposite, as the majority are made up of pro-Beijing parties and forces. Thus, the political landscape of Hong Kong has changed, although the power distribution of the LegCo is more or less the same.

Paradoxically, the high turnout rate bolstered the localists but not much in terms of the number of seats won by them or the pro-democracy parties. This can probably be explained by the increased number of registered voters. There are some 300,000 newly registered voters in this election. Compared with the previous election in 2012, there are 5.8 percent more voters in the 18-25 age group, 5 percent more in the 26-40 age group, 2.4 percent more in the 41-60 age group, and 23.4 percent more in the over 61 age group. Assuming that youngsters are inclined towards localists and pro-democracy parties, while the elderly are conservative and likely to support the pro-Beijing parties for stability, then the numbers may explain why the supporters of pro-Beijing parties have also increased. The Umbrella Movement and the rise of localism could have also triggered people in the other age groups to vote in the election.

Last but not least, the Hong Kong government should get ready to listen to the localists’ demands as they are now eligible to work within the established institutions rather than on the streets.