But it all went well until it didn’t. The morning after the by-elections, newsstands across the city were plastered with scathing headlines about the record low voters’ turnout. Only around 580,000 or 17.1% of registered voters went to the polls, well below any target that campaign organizers had hoped to achieve. Emboldened by the results, Donald Tsang and his posse rushed to declare the referendum a complete failure and used the abysmal turnout as evidence that citizens valued his reform package over radicalized political movements. Meanwhile, the Party of Five struggled to hide their disappointment and shifted media attention to the government’s below-the-belt tactics. But it was no use. When it was all said and done, the rebels got their seats back plus plenty of egg on their faces.
Voters’ apathy aside, the rebels also had themselves to blame. By announcing an actual turnout target (set initially at an unrealistic 50%, only to be revised down to 30% and eventually to 25% just three days before the elections), the Party of Five had backed themselves into a corner. Voters are notoriously fickle and those in a money-grubbing city like ours certainly cannot be counted on. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the success of a political movement must be measured not by a single number, but by whether it does what it is supposed to do. In this case the goal was to send Beijing a clear message that seven million Hong Kongers would not take the government’s regressive reform package lying down. Nothing more, nothing less. By that measure, the referendum was and continues to be a smashing success, if only we look hard enough to see it.
Like an unstoppable cannonball hitting an immovable wall, the de facto referendum touched a nerve and ruffled feathers in Beijing. As soon as the rebels announced their act of defiance, Central Government officials fell in line to express their displeasure, calling it “unconstitutional” – a ludicrous accusation with no legal basis – and threatening voters with doomsday scenarios.But the ripples of the referendum continue to be felt across our political landscape well beyond May 16. Within days after the by-elections, Beijing turned up the heat on its ground troops to ratchet up their public relations offensive. Representatives from the Liaison Office deigned to sit down with pan-democrats to break the legislative impasse. In an unfathomably stupid move, Tsang offered to take on Audrey Eu (余若薇), leader of the Civic Party, in a televised debate over his reform package. Just this weekend, the Chief Executive personally led his cabinet members in an all-out media blitz using the awkward “Act Now” (起錨) slogan to garner public support for his initiatives. Prime-time TV commercials, wall-to-wall posters and motorcades featuring a rogues’ gallery of bureaucratic pariahs were all part of a monkey show to assure Beijing that, despite the recent political close call, the administration still has the situation under control. Who says the referendum was a failure?