Chris Yeung: DAB can’t square the middle class circle

The DAB knows it has an image problem that restricts its base to old, pro-Communist voters. The dream of chasing the middle class and electoral centre remains elusive.

Photo: www.dab.org.hk


 

Three days before the November 22 District Council election, Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing (曾鈺成), apparently in his capacity as ex-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), appeared in early morning at Sui Wo housing estate, shadowing his party colleague Pang Cheung-wai (彭長緯) to say good morning to residents.

One day later, another heavyweight of the DAB, Tam Yiu-chung (譚耀宗), took up the torch to help canvass votes for Pang at the constituency in Sha Tin. Their rare appearance at the housing estate raised eyebrows. Pang, a DAB vice-chairman, and the incumbent of the Sui Wo constituency seat for 20 years, had been seen as a sure-win. Something compelled the party to commit heavyweight stars like Tsang and Tam during the valuable final hours of the campaign, suggesting it may have become a borderline seat.

The early move by Pang to press the crisis button has paid off. He kept his seat, frustrating a Civic Party challenger.

The fallen

His two DAB colleagues, namely Christopher Chung Shu-kan (鍾樹根) and Elizabeth Quat (葛珮帆), were less lucky. A mistaken sense of confidence of a comfortable victory in their own constituencies in Siu Sai Wan (Chung) and Sha Tin Chung On constituency (Quat) cost them their seats. Chung was humiliated by an “umbrella soldier,” Chui Chi-kin (徐子見), who decided to try to unseat Chung hours before the nomination closed. Imbued with confidence, they should have easily won another term. Perhaps foolishly, the pair was said to have taken a break in their own constituencies for a few hours and travelled to other constituencies to canvass votes for their party colleagues on the election day.

No seat was safe in this District Council elections.

The surprise defeat of Chung and Quat, both of whom sit on the Legislative Council, added more shock to the largest political party when results of the Sunday polls were announced. In an intriguing coincidence, the party won 119 seats, same as the seats they won in the 2011 election. They held on to another 17 previously appointed seats. DAB chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king (李慧琼) said at a post-election press conference the results are “OK.” The truth is, however, the results are anything but OK.

The expectations gap

Pundits from both the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps had a similar assessment before the election: The loyalists would pocket more seats. The political fallout of the Occupy Central and the vetoing of the political reform blueprint were seen as factors unfavourable to the pan-democrats. The growing dissatisfaction in a large segment of the society over the filibustering of some radical pan-democratic legislators was also poised to hurt the whole pan-dem faction. Meanwhile, the DAB went from strength to strength, thanks to their abundant resources, strong district network and well-tested election machinery.

In an article published on this website on November 10, Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek (鄭宇碩), who acted as coordinator of the various pan-democratic factions in the district polls, was pessimistic. He said there was wild speculation in political circles that the target of the pro-Beijing united front was to reduce the strength of the pro-democracy camp to 60 seats. Some analysts within the camp were gloomier, putting the number to below 50. One estimate put the expected total number of seats to be won by pan-democrats at 114, up from 92 in the 2011 election.

The DAB has its orders to march onwards – to its doom.

The DAB team did not live up to the expectations of themselves, Chief Executive Leung Chun-yin (梁振英) or the central government.

Reform and grow

Speaking at a meeting with a delegation of DAB led by Lee on July 27, top leader Zhang Dejiang (張德江)urged the pro-establishment camp to unite and to achieve good results in elections. He urged the DAB to stick to their beliefs and to insist on achieving their goals. Zhang, who is chairman of the National People’s Congress, urged the DAB to give more attention to recruiting young people, professionals and middle class to help strengthen their team. Zhang’s wish-list for the DAB has been seen by political pundits as an order for them to eliminate the pan-dems in this year’s district polls and next year’s Legco election.

Founded in 1992, the DAB has become the city’s Number One political party in many aspects. It has more than 28,000 members, 13 seats in the Legco and 136 district councillors. For many years, they have striven to change their pro-Beijing, old-fashioned image by recruiting more young professionals. Starry Lee, 41, an accountant, took the helm this year, replacing Tam Yiu-chung, a veteran unionist. Flying the banner of “loving China, loving Hong Kong,” they have vowed to say yes when the government does the right thing and say no when they go wrong. Veteran party leaders know well they will not be able to broaden their support base from the traditional pro-Beijing segment, who are generally older and grass-roots, to a bigger segment in the centre that includes younger and more educated voters.

Initial observations by political party figures is that more young first-time voters tended to have shunned the DAB candidates. The Waterloo of Christopher Chung is a telling case about the quality and political stance issue of the party. He was ridiculed for weird, bordering on stupid, remarks, poor English (his own name was misspelled as Chirs in one election banner) and his “yes-man” stance. Although the party holds the biggest number of seats in Legco and district councils, many young, middle class people think the DAB does not speak for them and for the mainstream of the society.

A tightrope too tricky

“The DAB is not unaware of their image and political positioning problem.”

The DAB is not unaware of their image and political positioning problem. But their efforts to move closer to the middle of the political spectrum have proved to be an uphill task. The balance between “loving China” and “loving Hong Kong” more difficult to find in view of the tense mainland-Hong Kong relations. Like it or not, they have and will continue to pay dearly in ballot box for Beijing’s hardened stance on Hong Kong. With Beijing bent on tightening control over Hong Kong and anxious to demand absolute loyalty to the Leung administration, the pressure for the flagship DAB to say ‘yes’ is immense, even though the relevant decisions are unpopular.

With no sign of a drastic change of Beijing’s policy and strategy towards Hong Kong, the DAB will face a tougher task in winning the hearts and minds of people in the centre of the political spectrum. Hopes held by Leung and Beijing that they can lead the pro-establishment brigade to reduce the number of pan-democratic seats to less than one-third in next year’s Legco election will be merely a pipe dream.

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong.His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

He writes on Greater China issues.

Chris Yeung

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