HONG Kong holds elections this Sunday to select its new Chief Executive, but as the select pool of voters take to the polls, activists are calling into question whether the process is democratic.
Sunday’s election is the first since widespread pro-democracy protests in 2014, popularly dubbed as the “umbrella revolution”, but those activists who fought for more open elections have little faith in democratic process being fulfilled this time around.
Beijing’s hand in the candidate selection and the unusual method of voting has many people labelling the election a “sham” and calling for a reform to the process.
Of the contenders, Beijing favourite, Carrie Lam, is slated to come out victorious despite her competitor being the more popular choice.
“This is entirely controlled by the Beijing government, it’s a selection, not an election,” says Nathan Law, a pro-democracy legislator, told The Guardian.
“If Carrie Lam wins, it will be hard for her to govern Hong Kong because she doesn’t have the support from ordinary people.”
Lam, former deputy to the present chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is one of three candidates running in Sunday’s race. Others include John Tsang, a past finance minister, and Woo Kwok-hing, a former judge and the most progressive candidate running.
Woo has consistently polled last among the three with Tsang proving to be the most popular by a significant margin.
Despite Tsang’s popularity, Lam is still likely to come out as victor due to the unusual method of voting used in the former British colony.
Only 1,194 people are able to cast a ballot, far less than the city’s 3.8 million registered voters. This select group of Hong Kong’s elite consists of millionaires and billionaires, including all 70 members of the city’s legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors. The Election Committee has been accused of being fiercely loyal to Beijing.
The notion of leaving the voting to this select group of privileged Hong Kongers has left many dismayed that citizens in the semi-autonomous state have no say in who runs the city.
“I am boycotting the election,” Law, who was voted onto the Legislative Council in September, told Financial Times. “It is pretty much controlled by the Beijing government and I don’t want to give credibility to an undemocratic system.”
The choice of chief executive is the latest pressure point facing a city that has become ever more polarised since the failure of the 2014 demonstrations to secure full democracy from Beijing.
Amid growing tensions, and increasing anger at outgoing leader Leung, the Chinese government has stepped up its intervention in Hong Kong’s electoral process, prompting a further backlash and the emergence of an independence movement that has caused consternation in Beijing.
Politicians say representatives of the Chinese government have been lobbying the electors behind the scenes to support Lam, who is believed to have the support of over 600 on the election committee.
The triumphant candidate will need 600 to win in Sunday’s secret ballot, with a further round of voting between the top two candidates if no one secures more than that.
While Lam is expected to win on Sunday, given the overwhelming support from the establishment, if she proves unsuccessful, Beijing still has the power to reject any candidate that is proposed by the committee, leaving authority effectively in their hands.
A recent poll from South China Morning Post (SCMP) found that Lam was backed by only 30 percent of the wider population compared to 47 percent for Tsang, with Woo lagging behind at 10.
The same study, however, found that two thirds of people also thought Lam had a better chance of winning despite her lack of popularity.
Lam has had a rocky campaign and has made a number of gaffes that have not endeared her to the general public.
Her decision to build a US$450 million Beijing-backed museum without public consultation sparked a bitter backlash back in December and drew more anger at her close relationship with China.
At a photo-call on the Hong Kong metro system, Lam was left red-faced after she didn’t know how to use a travel card to get through the entry gates. She was also forced to admit that, after living for so long in a government residence, she didn’t know where to buy toilet paper, furthering her image as an out-of-touch career politician.
Lam herself admitted in January there would be questions over her governance if she was picked as chief executive but trailed her rivals in terms of popularity.
Professor Francis Lee, the Chinese University academic who advises the pollsters, told SCMP the polling figures were a warning signal for Lam.
“Even if she wins, at the end of the day she will find herself lacking a popular mandate.”
Her lack of popularity will make the difficult task of navigating between a population that fears losing its freedoms and a Chinese government desperate to retain power, even more challenging. At this time of deep uncertainty, any misstep in the highly polarised world of Hong Kong politics has the potential to cause a diplomatic incident.
But no matter who wins, analysts expect little will change in terms of political culture.
“The big picture will remain the same,” Matthew Wong, a politics professor at Hong Kong University, told the The Guardian.
“Beijing has matters firmly in hand and there’s little Hong Kong people can do to change that.”