By Andy Li
Last month, a group of volunteers organized an independent Election Observation Mission (EOM) to observe the Sixth District Council Elections, comprising 19 delegates from 10 countries. Delegates listened to presentations from victims of police brutality, first-aiders, academics and other participants in the protests; they also conducted field visits to different polling stations and protest sites to gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake for the city.
The ongoing Hong Kong protests have seen a veritable blossoming of grassroots initiatives, including underground clinics, getaway cars, and safe houses, throughout the last six months. Why did we choose to pour our efforts into organizing an EOM?
The simple answer is that the Sixth District Council Election was, in many ways, a de facto referendum on Hong Kong’s future. Landing at around the six month mark of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, Hongkongers had the opportunity to go to the polls to make their voice heard about the kind of future they wanted the city to have––after half a year of government suppression enabled by a police force acting with impunity. Up until the day of the elections themselves, however, there was widespread fear that they would be cancelled, in an ongoing attempt by the government to clamp down on expressions of dissent.
In light of this, we hatched a plan to organize the first international election observation procedure for Hong Kong. Importantly, we did not want our delegates to simply look at the election process itself, but to enable them to assess the viability of a peaceful and sustainable resolution to the ongoing crisis through existing political mechanisms, given the current political conditions.
In the span of a week, we, a group of volunteers who don’t even know each other’s names or real occupations, reached into our global networks, booked 19 return plane tickets and hotel rooms, put together a packed three-day programme with talks from academics, frontline protesters, and medics, liaised with media, and recruited volunteers from all walks of life to help us actualize the EOM.
We knew that Hongkongers would be out in their droves to make their voices heard after these tumultuous months. But even more important than the elections themselves was what the elections represented for us: an opportunity to show our commitment to the universal ideal of democracy. We also wanted to engage in a dialogue with leaders of global democracies in order to learn about how we can implement best practices in our own flawed system––flawed, not by our own design, but because of historical factors.
International election observation missions are usually organized in by host governments in collaboration with international organizations. For example, the European Union deploys Election Observation Missions across the world, on the basis of the principles of mutual respect and partnership with countries in the fulfilment of their human rights obligations.
Hong Kong is not a member state of the United Nations, nor of any other regional body with a mechanism for initiating international election observation missions. On the world stage, Hong Kong is always dealt with as a subsidiary issue to China; hence, we inevitably appear on official documentation as ‘Hong Kong, SAR of China’. The question of our city’s democratization seems almost taboo.
But our EOM was founded on a different idea: of Hong Kong as deserving of the right to determine its own future; of Hongkongers as being capable of speaking qua Hongkongers, to make decisions about who we want to govern and how we want to hold those leaders accountable, and to make proactive appeals to the international community to help us learn and grow into a mature democracy, in spite of all of our constraints. The EOM is an attempt to show that our city is a worthy interlocutor in the world of liberal democracies––because our citizens know better than anyone how important it is to have a voice and to use it.
In the end, the elections saw 2,943,842 voters take to the polls––a remarkable turnout rate of 71.23%. Pro-democracy candidates won 347 seats, in comparison to the pro-government candidates’ 60 seats; the remaining 45 seats were won by independents.
Our delegates, coming from as far afield as Lithuania, Australia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, were able to see how committed Hongkongers are to a sustainable solution to the current political impasse, that puts citizens demand to be heard at the heart. As Lord Alton of Liverpool wrote, “Beijing and their Hong Kong Government mustn’t squander this historic opportunity to build political progress and end months of paralysis.”
We have welcomed the international community into our midst, because we know that we need the world’s support in fighting for our voices to be heard. We know that we cannot take democracy for granted; we hope that other countries will not take Hong Kong’s efforts for granted either.
Mr Andy Li is the Chairman of the Independent Election Observation Mission to Hong Kong. He is the Founder of “Hong Kong Story” and a volunteer member of “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”, both non-governmental advocacy organizations for the cause of Hong Kong. He has spoken at the United Nations Human Rights Council for the current Hong Kong social movement.