FOR 16 months, two seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council have sat empty. Four more have been vacant for eight. That the seats were empty in the first place was an affront to the city’s pro- democracy movement. The previous incumbents, elected only in 2016, had been disqualified for using their oathtaking speeches to criticise the governments of both Hong Kong and China. In the by-elections to fill four of the vacancies, on March 11th, the democrats suffered a further setback. Their candidates lost two of the four seats, one of them unexpectedly, depriving them of much of their legislative clout.

The Legislative Council, also known as Legco, is a body left over from British rule, part of which is democratically elected. It is riven between two ideological groups: the “pro-establishment” camp, which can be expected to support both Hong Kong’s government and, by extension, the Chinese one; and the “pan-democrats” who routinely oppose them. The establishment has a built-in advantage, in that only half the 70 seats are filled by universal suffrage. Another 30 are “functional constituencies”, selected by members of certain professions or civil-society groups with a pronounced pro-government bias. (The last five, nicknamed “super-seats”, are selected by voters who are not members of any functional constituencies.)

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Analysts had expected the democrats to lose the one vacant functional seat, but to win back the three of the “geographical” ones. Winning all three was important, as it would have given the democrats a majority of the “geographical seats”, enabling them to block some legislation despite the government’s legislative majority.

In the largest constituency, New Territories East, Gary Fan Kwok-wai of the Neo Democrats comfortably beat Bill Tang Ka-piu of the Federation of Trade Unions to regain the seat for the democrats. The democrats also won on Hong Kong Island, despite an administrative ruling that prevented their most popular candidate from running. Before campaigning started, a civil servant decided that Agnes Chow’s affiliation with a political party that advocates “self-determination” for Hong Kong meant that she could not uphold the territory’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, which defines Hong Kong as an “inalienable part of China”.

Instead that seat was contested by Au Nok-hin, a district councillor and activist. Although well known in political circles, Mr Au had worried before the vote about his low recognition among the general public. Nevertheless, with the help of some uber-heavyweight endorsements, including Martin Lee, a veteran democracy campaigner, and Anson Chan, a former chief secretary, he beat his pro-establishment rival by around 10,000 votes.

The surprise of the night came in Kowloon West, which was won by Vincent Cheng, a young district councillor who worked in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the constituency, since 2007. He is also a member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s largest pro-government party. Mr Cheng’s democratic rival, Edward Yiu, was the only disqualified legislator to run again. But he had previously represented a functional constituency chosen by architects. His campaign focused on his ill-treatment by the government. Clearly, his dismissal had not energised voters as much as he had imagined.

The establishment is heralding the result in Kowloon West as a breakthrough. Although only 2,400 votes, or around 1% of the total, separated the two candidates, the loss of the seat is still worrying to the pro-democracy camp. For Ma Ngok of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the result shows that advocating greater political freedom is not enough to secure victory. Its supporters are losing faith in the power of their vote, and staying at home, whereas the richer pro-China parties are good at getting their supporters to the polling booths.

The last two vacant seats in Legco cannot be filled until their former occupants have exhausted their appeals. If those disqualifications are upheld, there will be two more by-elections. It is not clear whether the former incumbents would run, or how they would perform. But it does seem certain that in future the democrats will have to put up even more of a fight just to maintain the status quo.

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