By Christopher Niem
The rise of Donald Trump, from rank outsider to the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, has stunned and shocked seasoned political observers and concerned citizens alike. Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric, coupled with Bernie Sanders’ anti-Wall Street message, has resonated deeply with the voting public and caused a seismic shift in the political landscape of America. In Hong Kong, the mood of the voting public is set to be tested in the 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, with many localist parties flying the anti-establishment banner.
By campaigning as a protest candidate, Trump has been able to tap into the deep discontent that Americans have with the political establishment. Peggy Noonan, in The Wall Street Journal, writes that the phenomenon of the out of touch protected class making policies on behalf of the vastly larger unprotected class has contributed to this disenchantment.
Trump has reveled in his role as a political outsider, untainted (by his estimation) by the association with Washington. There is widespread distrust on both sides of the political spectrum of establishment candidates, as gridlock in Washington, caused in part by lack of bi-partisan support for legislation, frustrates ordinary Americans.
Much of what is happening in America mirrors the political situation in Hong Kong. Filibustering in LegCo and the total stalemate over political reform has led to widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment. It is into this post-Umbrella Movement environment that localist parties, such as Hong Kong Indigenous, have entered. With their populist, anti-establishment rhetoric, much of it xenophobic and nativist in nature, these parties are attempting to fill the void left by the distrust of traditional political parties. Coupled with the bleak economic outlook for the youth in Hong Kong, it is not difficult to see the appeal of such parties.
Pan-democratic parties in Hong Kong will no doubt view the rise in popularity of localist parties with trepidation. The challenge for them is to remain relevant in a landscape where they are no longer the most extreme. Many localist parties have already pledged to resign immediately from seats that they win in the upcoming LegCo election, triggering a de facto referendum, a move similar to pan-democratic lawmakers in 2010.
Thus, traditional parties face the challenge of moving on from running protest campaigns to a more conciliatory approach. Despite the many challenges pan-democratic parties face in LegCo, attempts to break the political impasse through continued dialogue with pro-establishment parties and Chinese government officials would offer a tangible alternative to the localist protest candidates.
As Ed Smith points out in his column on the rise of Trump: “So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.” With Hong Kong facing a crossroads in the face of continued debate about it’s future post-2047, and more political gridlock on the horizon, one wonders whether the pro-establishment and pan-democrat parties can compromise and find a way forward. Otherwise, Hong Kong’s own version of Donald Trump may be just around the corner.