Posted: Aug. 20 2012
Hong Kong’s long contentious political season will come to an end, of sorts, with the election of 70 new Legislative Council members. Probably the September 9thpoll will only herald more of the same after everyone returns from much-needed vacations to start a new legislative year in October. But for now political leaders are engaged in one final struggle to determine who has fared better and who worse from the last two years of constant wrangling over political reform and the selection of representatives at all levels who will be responsible for guiding Hong Kong through the second decade of its life under mainland rule.
The multiple parties and groups that rank themselves as pan-democrats have so far won the contest for street marches and political rallies hands down. But they are also slowly losing their battles at the ballot box … not for want of votes or lack of popular enthusiasm for their causes. Instead, pan-democrats failure seems due to a refusal to admit that their pro-Beijing political adversaries have now mastered all the tricks of the Western-style electioneering trade and are using them to legitimize a mainland-style people’s congress system where pan-democrats will be unable to compete. This has already happened at the grassroots District Councils level and pro-Beijing politicians are now setting their sights on the Legislative Council. September 9th may have a different result due to public anger over growing “mainland-ization” aggravated most recently by the new mainland-style political studies program for all students (July 31 post). Otherwise, all indications are that pan-democrats’ ballot-box victories will continue to recede as they have been doing for the past decade … thanks to a lack of political foresight and coherent preventive strategies that seem to derive from their strange state-of-denial.
Unfortunately for those interested in the subject who don’t live here (and can’t simply “learn-by-doing” as the process unfolds), its intricacies need to be explained. But herein lies a major difficulty since Hong Kong has what must be the most convoluted election system in use on the planet. Nevertheless, we must try.
The basic design comprises two types of legislators: 35 elected from Geographic Constituencies and 35 elected from Functional Constituencies. As part of the political reform package introduced in 2010, the total number of legislators has been increased from 60 to 70, with five seats added in each of the two categories.
Geographic Constituency legislators are elected directly by universal suffrage on a one-person-one-vote basis, although votes are transferrable and allocated proportionally within each of five election districts. Seats are apportioned according to population as follows (along with the number of registered voters) in each district:
Hong Kong Island: 7 seats (606,676)
Kowloon East: 5 seats (559,524)
Kowloon West: 5 seats (437,967)
New Territories East: 9 seats (874,678)
New Territories West: 9 seats (987,330)
Also following from the 2010 political reforms, Functional Constituencies (FCs) now come in two kinds: old style and new. They will be electing 30 old-style legislators and five new. The old-style FCs are (basically) the same as those that elect the Chief Executive Election Committee, which selected Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying a few months ago (Jan. 16, 2012 post). There are 28 in all, designed to represent most sectors of the economy but weighted to favor conservative big-business and pro-Beijing interests. For example, this category includes three labor seats. But only union leaders can vote and each elector has three votes, meaning each can vote for three candidates. This ensures that all three seats are filled by pro-Beijing labor representatives since a majority of Hong Kong’s trade unions have been pro-Beijing since the 1950s. (The 28 old FCs are listed in my April 16, 2010 post.)
The new FC legislators were a major source of controversy in 2010. The government and the main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB), proposed a mainland-style indirectly-elected arrangement whereby Hong Kong’s 412 directly-elected District Councilors could elect five of their number to sit in the Legislative Council. The idea was to use this conventional method as a means of phasing out the anachronistic old FCs and substituting as replacements the equally “safe” indirectly-elected District Councilors. They would be safe because pro-Beijing and conservative forces now dominate all the District Councils, which are overseen by pro-Beijing stalwart Tsang Tak-sing who heads the Home Affairs Department reportedly at Beijing’s behest.
The controversy erupted after Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan (negotiating for pan-democrats but without the consent of all) agreed to the proposal — but only if ALL voters could participate in electing the five new FC legislators. As a result, only the 400+ District Councilors can nominate candidates and be nominated to stand as candidates for these five new seats. So they will still be occupied by District Councilors (as will a sixth seat, namely, the old District Council FC seat that remains unchanged). But all voters (who are not qualified to vote in any of the old FCs) can vote in the new FC category. That means all of us (non-old-FC electors) now have two votes. And six legislators will be wearing two hats as concurrent members of two (Legislative and District) councils.
After accusations of “vote planting” following last November’s District Councils election, the government belatedly attempted to verify and update its lists. Vote planting refers to those who register to vote in constituencies where they do not reside. The closest contests were carefully scrutinized (by the losing candidates themselves) and no results of that election were overturned, although several vote planters are being prosecuted. But some 200,000+ voters were subsequently struck from the rolls for failing to respond to verification notices. A new voter registration drive has made up for about half the losses. The final counts for voters qualified to cast ballots on September 9 are: Georgraphic Constituency voters, 3.46 million; old FC voters, 241,000; new FC voters, 3.2 million.*
CANDIDATES AND STRATEGIES
The system is rooted in British legislative ingenuity. Long ago, as their colonies were allowed to begin the journey toward self-rule, elections and legislatures were designed to produce what were called “safe” loyal majorities. Hong Kong lagged behind all others in this respect. Its first real experiment with such reform did not begin until the 1980s, but the designs were based on the same old colonial logic. Beijing quickly grasped its possibilities and Hong Kong’s Basic Law formulas were designed accordingly.
Hence even if pan-democrats by some miracle could become as disciplined as their pro-Beijing counterparts, pan-democrats would still be unable to use their popularity to proportional legislative advantage. But in addition, beyond this basic design handicap, the real challenge now is that the DAB together with its allies are beginning to win elected majorities and are using the legitimacy of the popular vote to dominate the system overall. Since no one is explaining this in clear-cut simple terms for general public consumption, voters continue to cast their ballots at every election unaware that they are helping the DAB in its slow steady drive to lay the building blocks of a mainland-style system.
The Old FCs: 28 constituencies, 30 seats. These are naturally the easiest to manage. This year will see a record number of carry-over uncontested seats, or 16 in all for 14 FCs. The government’s information bulletin notes helpfully that some 23,000 electors in these old FCs “do not have to vote.” * They include the three labor seats, the old District Councils seat, and that of the Rural Consultative Council (Heung Yee Kuk), a special sinecure slot reserved for New Territories suburban land owners.
A total of 37 candidates are contesting the other 14 FCs. Pan-democrats currently hold only four: education, legal, health care providers, and social workers. In the past, pan-democrats have also won the information technology, medical, and accountancy seats. Professional Commons, a group for policy wonks close to the Civic Party, is contesting five constituencies, but pan-democrats are in danger of losing their important legal stronghold. Its long-serving occupant, the Civic Party’s Margaret Ng, is retiring and their replacement candidate may lose to a non-democrat who is the beneficiary of an intense partisan bid to capture this seat. He has boasted of collecting 800 nominating endorsement signatures from fellow constituents, even though only 10 are required for old-FC candidates. This seat represents the legal fraternity, with a total of 6,482 registered voters. Margaret Ng won with 2,468 votes in the last (2008) election.
The New FC: one hybrid District Council constituency, 5 seats, 7 candidate lists. This new category highlights pan-democrats’ failure to focus on their opponents’ take-over strategy “from below” via popular elections. Albert Ho’s compromise decision accepting this new hybrid FC was made so carelessly that even leading members of his own Democratic Party did not understand until weeks later that the five new FC seats were NOT going to be open to all kinds of candidates.
The DAB resented Beijing’s agreement to compromise by giving all voters (and not just the 400 District Councilors as originally planned) a say, and so gave no quarter when the details were written into the implementing rules. Only then did Albert Ho clarify that his compromise contained no agreement to allow everyone the right not just to vote for these seats but to contest them as well. To qualify as a candidate, only District Councilors need apply and they need the nominating signatures of 15 other District Councilors.
That realization naturally gave new impetus to last November’s District Councils election and was what inspired some big name democrats (Ronny Tong, Lee Cheuk-yan, Sin Chung-kai) to parachute into District Council constituencies. They were hoping to qualify as candidates for what has come to be known as the new “super seats” because of their single all-city electorate. But the compromise also provoked radicals led by Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man to lead a similar parachute-jump into constituencies all over town where moderate incumbent democrats including Albert Ho were defending their seats. He currently wears two hats as a member of both the Legislative Council and a District Council.
Raymond Wong’s idea was to “teach them a lesson” for capitulating on political reform. Instead, all the pan-democratic parachuters lost in a lesson learned the hard way. They did not realize that the District Councils are now pro-Beijing territory where the influence of loyalists and their conservative allies are entrenched. They have succeeded in this respect by the well-funded social services and amenities they provide, targeting seniors and with a deliberate focus on livelihood issues. Their candidates at this level (indeed all levels) try never to discuss “politics” if they can help it. Even the highly political campaign they waged last year against the Civic Party emphasized specifically the alleged threat posed by their high-profile court cases to working class jobs and low-cost middle class domestic help (Dec. 5, 2011 post).
In the loyalist/conservative upsurge that followed, not only were all the pan-democratic parachuters defeated but so were some big name democratic incumbents like the Civic Party’s Tanya Chan and the Democratic Party’s Lee Wing-tat. Albert Ho was one of the few survivors, along with two other less popular incumbents (Nov. 14, 2011 post). The three of them now stand alone as pan-democrats’ only hope for winning at the “super seat” level. Albert Ho had vowed not to contest one of these seats to avoid the implications of having created them for his own benefit. But after last November’s debacle, he became by common agreement pan-democrats’ best hope for winning one.
Heading their three lists are the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho and James To Kun-sun, plus veteran moderate Frederick Fung Kin-kee. Heading the loyalists’ lists are three strong candidates: Federation of Trade Unions leader Chan Yuen-han who came out of retirement for this race and parachuted into a safe District Council constituency last November by way of preparation; a DAB vice-chairman Lau Kong-wah who also won with ease after parachuting back into his old Shatin District Council support base last November; and the DAB’s attractive young rising star, Starry Lee Wai-king. The maverick in this race, heading the seventh list, is aging photo-op candidate Pamela Peck Wan-kam. She rode the conservative upsurge to victory in a Wanchai District Council constituency last November and may deprive both sides of a few marginal votes.
Presumably, the entire cast of pro-democracy characters would have behaved differently last year had they understood: (1) the grassroots strength of their opponents’ District Councils base; and (2) their strategy for using that base as a bridge to dominate the Legislative Council.
The Geographic Constituencies: 5 districts, 35 seats, 67 lists, 216 candidates.
HK Island: 7 seats
14 lists (pan-dems, 5; pro-establishment, 5; independent, 4)
KN East: 5 seats
9 lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent, 3)
KN West: 5 seats
9 lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent, 3)
NT East: 9 seats
19 lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment 6; independent, 5)
NT West: 9 seats
16 lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment, 6; independent, 2)
(To be continued)