Posted:  Aug. 29, 2012


How times have changed.  In Hong Kong’s first election to allow universal suffrage for a minority of Legislative Council seats, pro-democracy politicians swept the field.  They liked to call themselves liberals in those days and won all but one of the 18 seats being contested in 1991.  So fearful were the powers-that-be of the havoc liberal majorities might wreck that not only was the Legislative Council’s colonial-style complexity carved into Basic Law stone for post-colonial use, but proportional representation was decreed for all the seats directly elected by universal suffrage after 1997.  The reason, said officials when challenged, was that in Hong Kong’s nascent democracy, all kinds of people must be given a chance and pro-Beijing politicians would have none at all without proportional representation.


That method of allocating votes remains in use for half the Legislative Council:  the 35 seats to be filled by direct election on September 9 (for the other half, see previous post).  But in an ironic reversal of fortunes, it is now pan-democrats who are the beneficiaries of proportional representation while pro-establishment candidates are beginning to dream about the possibilities of life without it.   Without it, pan-democrats might suffer the same fate at the Legislative Council level that they experienced in the District Councils election last November (Nov. 14, 2011 post).  At that level, constituencies are small, each is represented by one councilor, and the first-past-the-post candidate wins a seat on one of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.

In contrast, votes for half the Legislative Council seats  —  the 35 filled by one-person-one-vote from the Geographic Constituencies  —  are apportioned within each of the five districts listed before (Aug. 20 post):

The Geographic Constituencies:  5 districts, 35 seats, 67 lists, 216 candidates.

Hong Kong Island:   7   seats

14   lists (pan-dems, 5; pro-establishment, 5; independent, 4)

Kowloon East:            5  seats

9  lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent, 3)

Kowloon West:           5 seats

9  lists (pan-dems, 4; pro-establishment, 2; independent, 3)

New Territories East9  seats

19  lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment 6; independent, 5)

New Territories West9 seats

16 lists (pan-dems, 8; pro-establishment, 6; independent, 2)

The system works like so.  The 35 legislators are elected directly by universal suffrage on a one-person-one-vote basis.  But each person’s vote is transferrable and allocated proportionally within each of the five districts.   As for the candidates, they can run individually or as members of lists, in which case “excess” votes over and above what the first listed candidate needs to win a seat can be transferred to the second candidate on his/her list.  Since the proportion of the total vote count needed to win a seat on Hong Kong Island is 14.3%, its seven seats will be filled by candidates in relation to that proportion of the total HK Island vote.

If a “list” has only one candidate, all votes in excess of 14% will be “wasted.”  Otherwise, they will be transferred to the second candidate on the first winner’s list.  If no other candidate wins 14%, the district’s remaining six seats will simply be filled in order by the candidates receiving the largest number of votes, regardless of how few.  The second listed candidate will take his/her place in line along with all the others.  If no candidate wins 14%, all seven seats will be filled in that order.  As vote counting proceeds down the lists on Election Night (and into the early hours next day), the last seat in each district can be filled with only a small number of the full portion needed to win the first seat.


This arrangement is naturally conducive to a proliferation of small parties.  There are even more now than there were in 2008 for the last election.  Proportional representation also works nicely forHong Kong’s great array of issue-oriented small-group activists (an aspect of the local political scene that extends far back in time to the 1949-1979 decades when people were always talking about political reform but never actually got around to it, for many reasons).  The system encourages everyone to try their luck and provides an easy platform for publicizing causes, even when candidates know they have little hope of actually winning a seat.  The game is open to any list (or any one candidate standing alone) with a HK$50,000 deposit, and nominating signatures from 100 registered voters in the district. The deposit is forfeited only by those who fail to win 3% of the total vote in the district.*

Unfortunately, the system is also conducive to fragmentation and infighting, especially prevalent among pan-democrats.  It can put them at a considerable disadvantage when competing with anything as big, well-organized, and disciplined as the Chinese Communist Party  —  especially since it’s only the party’s surrogates who are out in front orchestrating local operations (without ever actually admitting who and what they represent).  In the beginning this didn’t matter.  Pan-democrats were winning virtually all the votes cast and could afford the luxury of their familiar happy-go-lucky small-group ways.  Their proportion of the total vote began to shrink in the early 2000s, but still they didn’t worry too much, due to the 60:40 pattern that developed.  That means 60% for democrats and 40% for “pro-establishment” candidates (about 30% for pro-Beijing plus conservative others).  Pan-democrats have comforted themselves during the past decade with a 60% share of the total vote count that they continued to receive in Legislative Council elections  —  allowing them to ignore the slow steady take-over by their opponents at the District Council level below.

         Additionally, pan-democrats had the back-up safety net of the single transferrable vote system which has benefited them especially by allowing their small parties and individual candidates to slip into the last seat in each district with only a few thousand votes.  In 2008, one-time firebrand and top vote-getter Emily Lau won the last seat with only 33,000 votes in New Territories East where the total vote count was 361,000.   She became a moderate shortly afterward and joined the Democratic Party.  On Hong Kong Island, two pan-democrats benefited in the same way:  Audrey Eu of the Civic Party and Cyd Ho, then an independent loner.  The popular Eu was deliberately ranked second on her party’s list in order to guarantee first-ranked party new-comer Tanya Chan a better chance of winning and hopefully give the party two seats, a risky strategy that just barely succeeded.  Cyd Ho has since helped set up the new Labor Party.

As a result, even though pan-democracy candidates did just barely meet their 60% threshold in 2008 (59.4% if all the also-rans are also counted), they were able to win 19 of the then 30 directly-elected seats in the Legislative Council.   The pro-Beijing camp was especially chagrined at losing what it thought would be a safe seat for its party’s second candidate on the Hong Kong Island list.  In that district, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) received 60,400 votes, which netted only one seat while the Civic Party’s 82,600 votes elected two legislators.  This year, pro-Beijing forces are preparing to fight fire with fire.

At an open academic forum last spring, a DAB vice chairman, Horace Cheung, explained the strategic calculations that had resulted from its 2008 experience.  The forum was co-sponsored by Hong Kong University and the U.S. National Democratic Institute, an organization that the local pro-Beijing press loves to hate (April 25, 2012 post).  In the past, the DAB rarely showed up at such events.  But on this occasion, Horace Cheung not only explained how they were aiming to win as many seats as possible on September 9.   He also revealed that they were thinking big thoughts about ways of marginalizing small parties and moving Hong Kong toward a “two-party system.”

Cheung used the example of  New Territories East where the DAB had received 100,000 votes in 2008 but won only two seats.  In contrast, the Democratic Party’s two lists together received fewer votes (86,000 total), but they too won two seats.  The lesson we learned, he said, was that under the present system many lists can win more seats with fewer votes.  For that reason, they are running more lists themselves and their ally, the Federation of Trade Unions (that already controls three Functional Constituency seats) is also contesting with its own separate lists.  The union is fielding its own candidates separately from the DAB in four of  Hong Kong’s five geographic constituencies and in the all-city super seat constituency as well.  In years past, the FTU with its tens-of-thousands of affiliated union members had performed mainly back-up canvassing and get-out-the-vote support work for the DAB.  This year they are making a concerted effort to translate that supporting role into additional pro-Beijing Legislative Council seats.  The FTU claims 300+ affiliated unions.  The DAB now has 20,000 members making it Hong Kong’s largest political party by far.  The FTU and DAB have always worked closely together focusing, respectively, on working and middle class concerns.

But Cheung then went on to share some of the DAB’s thoughts about the long term.  They had now learned how to win direct elections in the small and medium sized constituencies that elect district-level representatives and Legislative Councilors.  The next step, was to see how well pro-Beijing candidates could do on a straightforward all-city basis with the five new super seats.  These seats will be elected by all voters with the entire city serving as a single constituency (Aug. 20 post).   The innovation, he said, would provide valuable experience for Hong Kong’s future political reform.

Instead of trying to phase out the Legislative Council’s Functional Constituency seats by replacing them with indirectly-elected District Councilors (as they tried to do with the 2010 reform project), the DAB is now thinking that the all-city super seats can point the way forward.  Small parties can’t win a super seat, noted Cheung, so if Hong Kong could replace the FCs with super-seat legislators, it would pave the way toward emergence of a “two-party” system.**  In 1997, proportional representation was introduced as a crutch for pro-Beijing candidates to lean on.  Today, the small parties it encourages have become the mainstay of continuing pan-democratic victories and the September 9th election is being fought on that basis.


Unfortunately, such long-term strategic thoughts are not part of anyone’s platform or campaign trail stump-speech.  DAB leaders rarely discuss their plans in public.  If they did, pan-democrats would doubtless worry less about mobilizing their people to get-out-the-vote.  Such a prospect as Horace Cheung described might impart the same sense of urgency that defensive pro-Beijing loyalists have always been able to muster among partisans for their come-from-behind candidates.

As it is, pan-democrats like to speak in general terms  …  high-sounding variations on the themes of “Hong Kong values” and universal suffrage   …  while assuming voters will get the point.  Everyone does.  They just don’t necessarily see the urgency of casting a ballot without some additional clear and pressing reason.  There were such reasons in 1998 and 2004, when turnouts peaked at 53% and 55.6% of all registered voters.  This year the chief hot-button political issue is “mainland-ization,” epitomized by the government’s plan to introduce national political education for all students (July 31 post).  Whether that plus the “consciousness-raising” effect of Hong Kong’s recent political reform and Chief Executive election campaigns will provide the necessary incentive remains to be seen.

What can be seen is the way pro-Beijing candidates and their conservative allies avoid direct political questions.  They have responded in support of the new national education requirement when asked directly.  But a televised debate by the seven super-seat candidates on August 17 was more typical.  Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho challenged his three pro-Beijing opponents to raise their hands if they agreed with him on three controversial mainland-related issues.  All three failed to respond one way or the other.  The three are Chan Yuen-han (FTU), Lau Kong-wah (DAB), and Starry Lee Wai-king (DAB).  Their published circulars and platform statements are even more revealing for revealing nothing at all about their political beliefs and plans for Hong Kong.

Unionist Chan, known as her camp’s “queen of votes,” is circulating an impressive platform statement full of policy positions on labor, housing, welfare, health care, and economic wellbeing for all … but not a word about any of  Hong Kong’s pressing political concerns.  Ditto Lau Kong-wah.  Starry Lee’s campaign material mentions “universal suffrage” only in passing.

To find forcefully-stated political concerns up front and center, voters can turn to either People Power or League of Social Democrats candidates, led respectively by “Mad Dog” Raymond Wong and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.  Their radical good intentions ended in the District Councils election debacle last November.  But if those two parties saw any urgency in winning as many Legislative Council seats as possible for pan-democrats, they would not have opted to run against each other (or like-minded but less flamboyant Civic and Labor Party candidates) in all five districts.  At least one seat already looks like being lost to the opposition as a result (in Kowloon East).

The Democratic Party and especially its chairman Albert Ho have been working overtime to recover from the badgering they received after his 2010 compromise decision on political reform.  His participation in the Chief Executive election campaign was part of that effort and so is the party’s election platform being carried into battle by lists in all districts.  Its credentials as a mainstay of pan-democrats’ devotion to the cause of human rights in China  remain untarnished and are now a plus for the party exploited by Albert Ho and others whenever possible.  Additionally, the first two points of the party’s 15-point platform aim to remind voters that the party has not given up the struggle in Hong Kong either:  (1) no Article 23 national security legislation until comprehensive political reform has been achieved; (2) safeguard Hong Kong’s “core values,” especially the freedom of all forms of political expression in accordance with the “one-country, two-systems” promise.  Other points address labor and livelihood issues, not unlike the pro-Beijing camp except that the latter (ironically) avoids “class war” talk against tycoons, property hegemony, and the wealth gap.


Probably there are two good reasons for the lackluster turnout rates that have determined past elections and may do the same for this one.  Pollsters seem never to ask people why they don’t vote, but one reason must surely be the lackluster nature of the Legislative Council itself.  In Hong Kong’s “executive-led” Basic Law system, the government proposes and the legislature debates and usually approves.  This is because it is not just the electoral arrangements that were designed to keep democrats at bay.  A split-level system (intended to simulate a “two house” legislature) was created whereby the conservative-dominated Functional Constituency legislators and directly-elected proportionally-representative legislators vote as a single house on all government bills and initiatives.  These pass with a simple majority of all members present.   This doesn’t necessarily give the government automatic victories but it helps.

On their own, however, legislators cannot move any substantive policy proposal without the executive’s permission and none that concern public expenditure, political structures, or government operations (Basic Law, Article 74).  For the most part, only symbolic proposals and motions can be raised from the floor.  And all of those must be voted on separately, by each “house,” which gives conservatives effective veto power.  As far as pan-democrats are concerned, all of this means that the Legislative Council is essentially a platform for debate only and increasingly for frustrated protest gestures.  Hong Kongers are always taking to the streets, says a note attached to the Democratic Party’s platform, reminding everyone that without meaningful political reform Hong Kongers have no other means of making their voices heard.

Unlike 2004 when the public was galvanized by opposition to the government’s national security legislation, pan-democrats can no longer even dream of winning half of all Legislative Council seats.  Campaigning pan-democrats today are pleading with voters to elect a scant 24 legislators (total, including a few Functional Constituency seats), which is about the most they can realistically hope to win.  That number also represents the one-third minority needed to veto future legislation on political reform, as mandated by the Basic Law.  Super-majorities are not required for anything else (except motions to censure and impeach the Chief Executive and miscreant lawmakers themselves).  Hence pan-democrats have already, in effect, ceded everything else to the majority that will be returned by the alliance of pro-Beijing working class and conservative big business interests.

A second probable reason for Hong Kong’s habitual lackluster turnout must be the lack of much opportunity to make a difference.  Pollsters have been busy throughout the past month and Ming Pao Daily has been providing the most regular tracking poll updates (Aug. 6, 7, 13, 20).  Unless there is a major groundswell one way or the other, the contest on September 9 will essentially be decided by who can fill the final seat in each of the five districts and who will win the last of the five new super seats.

Nevertheless, it is at this point that the fun begins and it’s called pei-piao 配票  or strategic voting.    Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program recently asked voters if they would pei-piao and 72% of the respondents said no.  But for reasons known only to the pollster, the question was asked in a strange way:  if your camp issued instructions based on your HK ID card number or birth date would you be willing to pei-piao?***   Any such intrusive order would undoubtedly be resented.  Had the question been phrased differently, the answer would undoubtedly have been different as well since it has become a favorite practice.

For everyone who is interested in the outcome, intends to vote, and regards themselves as being committed to one camp or the other, the polls are now essential reading.    Consequently, people tend not to decide until they have seen the last pre-Election Day print-outs and consulted one last time with friends, relatives, and anyone who can (hopefully) be trusted.  Ming Pao’s August 20 poll showed that about one-quarter of the respondents were still undecided in all five districts.  Before making their final decisions, partisans (on both sides) are waiting to see which candidates on their side:  not only need the extra votes, but are also in a position to benefit most from a few more.  Of course, that’s also why pollsters are turning up so many undecided respondents.  Partisans would not want to show their hands too soon …  (to be continued).

*  —  “Legislation”

**  —  April 21, 2012 forum, panel 2.



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