A small group of pro-democracy lawmakers has sought acceptance from critics who disagree with their decision to cast blank protest votes during Sunday’s chief executive election.

The minority included Nathan Law, Fernando Cheung and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. They insisted on boycotting the small-circle election, despite the decision of most pro-democracy electors to vote for ex-finance chief John Tsang. Securing only 365 out of 1,194 votes, Tsang lost to rival Carrie Lam by a large margin.

(L to R) Lawmakers Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai, Eddie Chu, Ray Chan and Shiu Ka-chun protested near the election venue. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Principle vs. strategy

Traditionally, the pro-democracy camp advocates universal suffrage and opposes the chief executive electoral system.

But this year, around 300 pro-democracy electors voted for Tsang, who led in public opinion polls. Their decision to back a pro-establishment politician led to divisions within the camp. Those who cast a protest vote came under fire for “not respecting public opinion.”

Lawmaker Eddie Chu apologised to Tsang’s supporters for disappointing them. But he continued: “Politicians cannot please everyone… I hope you will understand our decision one day.”

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Lawmaker Lau Siu-lai said on Sunday that she respected the “strategic” decision of some pro-democracy electors in voting for Tsang.

“But the success of this strategy depended on whether the business sector and pro-establishment moderates would also vote for Tsang,” she said. Towards election day, Tsang appeared to have little chance of winning, as most electors indicated their support for Lam.

By casting a protest vote, Lau said, she wanted to represent those who opposed the Article 23 security law and Beijing’s decision in 2014 to bar open elections in Hong Kong – two controversial issues that Tsang expressed support for during his campaign.

A banner against the Article 23 security law. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

‘Tyranny of the majority’

These minority lawmakers continued to be criticised after the election by online commenters, who warned that their parties would “pay for their decision” in future elections.

But lawmaker Nathan Law said that following the opinion of the majority does not lead to democracy, using the popular support for incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying before he was elected as an example.

“If today I voted according to public opinion – which is always changing – wouldn’t I be going against democratic principles and my campaign promises?” Law said.

Nathan Law. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Billy Fung, former student union president of the University of Hong Kong, said democracy is not just about public opinion. “If society passed a referendum proposing to kill me, then I would probably have to die,” he said.

“When the opinion of the majority goes against [democratic] values, we will need to defend these values, or else we will be ruled by a tyranny of the majority.”

Wilson Wong Wai-ho, associate professor of public administration at the Chinese University, said Tsang was only the “good cop” to Lam’s “bad cop” and not a hero, as his supporters suggested. He warned that throwing support behind Tsang would hinder Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

“The real opponent of Hongkongers is the central government,” he said.

Though Tsang enjoyed popular support, he also faced opposition from the pro-democracy and localist camps.

John Tsang’s campaign tour. Photo: Facebook/John Tsang.

In a statement released on Sunday, the Civic Party – whose members voted for Tsang – called on pro-democracy supporters to “put down their differences” and stand in unity.

Meanwhile, lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung said efforts to reconcile the two camps were “unnecessary.” Instead, he urged other pro-democracy leaders to join him in protesting outside the China Liaison Office – Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong – this week.

“Let’s act now in a new wave of resistance. There is no need to wait till July 1,” Leung said.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.