Posted:  Dec. 12, 2013

 

A universal suffrage election for the next Chief Executive election in 2017 is the big prize.  But Hong Kong’s political reform project is actually a two-part affair,  as the just-issued Consultation Document indicates (Dec. 6 post).   The other part is about the Legislative Council (Legco).  Beijing’s promise for 2017 came with a vaguely-worded note on universal suffrage for Legco, which is mandated in the Basic Law (Article 68).  The note said that a universal suffrage election could be introduced for the next Legco election “after” 2017. *

Democracy campaigners concluded that the coming 2016 poll should begin laying the groundwork for universal suffrage in 2020, which is the next Legco election “after” 2017.   Beijing  has never actually specified the 2020 date but campaigners have made it their goal.  Preparations also need to start well in advance since …  if it ever materializes …  the project would be far more complicated than designing a universal suffrage Chief Executive election.

Unfortunately, instead of  providing evidence of good faith, Consultation Document suggestions for 2016, presented in chapter four of the document,  give democracy campaigners virtually no reason to trust the government’s intentions for 2020.   Not surprising then that dark clouds are gathering and another angry protest march is being planned for New Year’s Day, 2014.   The first eggs have been thrown, by League of Social Democrats’ members at an official forum last weekend,  and League chairman “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung is unapologetic.  So is “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man who warned Chief Secretary Carrie Lam that “petrol bombs” might be the next response to her “fake” consultation exercise.

PRODUCT DESIGN

The problem with a Legco election is that it now entails 70 members, all with interests of their own that are embedded in the current set-up.  Only 35 of the 70 are directly elected and all of  Hong Kong’s  3.47 million registered voters are eligible to participate on a one-person, one-vote basis.  But these 35 directly-elected seats are filled via a complicated system of multi-seat districts, with single transferrable votes … a form of proportional representation.

This system encourages even the smallest factions to try for the “last seat” in each of  Hong Kong’s five Legco election districts or Geographical Constituencies as they are known here.  Pro-democracy politicians are losing their natural majority-support advantage in this way, ceding progressively more votes and seats with every election cycle.  In contrast,  their pro-Beijing adversaries are unified and disciplined and have learned better than to compete against each other in any given district.  They also adjust their election strategies to accommodate their conservative allies.

The other half of  Legco is composed of special-interest legislators who represent 28 Functional Constituencies (FCs).  They have a combined voter base of  238,000 registered electors, including some 16,000 corporate bodies and 222,000 individuals. These people are naturally not too keen about losing their privileged access to power.  But they are not the only obstacle to creating a 70-seat legislature elected on a one-person, one-vote basis as democracy campaigners say they want.

The FCs were designed by the British in the 1970s and 1980s, when electoral reform was in its infancy.  Beijing’s Basic Law drafters saw the possibilities and not only wrote the FCs into the Basic Law for Legco, but used them to create the Chief Executive Election Committee as well.  They can be counted on to choose mostly “safe” pro-establishment loyalist and conservative legislators.  Only a handful of the FC seats are held by democrats who dominate in the legal, education, and social work constituencies.

FUNCTIONAL CONSTITUENCIES FOREVER?

           The only progressive addition to this mix in the Consultation Document is the absence of  Beijing’s proviso, which extended through the 2012 Legco election, mandating the half-half composition.   That proviso has been dropped.  The public is asked to consider only three questions with respect to the coming 2016 election and one of them is whether the “half-half” ratio, between Geographical and Functional Constituencies, should or should not be changed.

Democracy campaigners say, of course, the ratio must be changed:  to reduce the number of FCs in 2016, and eliminate all by 2020.  Probably that is not going to happen because neither the Consultation Document nor anything else contains any indication that official thinking, either here or in Beijing, is moving in that direction.  Loyalists and conservatives have been thinking up all kinds of ingenious arguments in their effort to explain why special-interest legislators should be retained indefinitely for the greater good of all.

Along with the half-half ratio, which the Consultation Document seems to hope can be retained given the rank-order of possibilities on offer (Legco 2016, Question 1, pp. 40-41), the document also wants to know if the electoral base of the FCs should be enlarged (Question 2).  This question is fraught with complications and no options are suggested.  But from time-to-time someone remembers what the last British governor did when he tried to circumvent the  “small circle”  FCs that by the 1990s had already been carved in Basic Law stone and promulgated for post-1997 use.

Christopher Patten’s solution was simply to give everyone a second vote and let all registered voters become part of the electorate for a few super-sized FCs.  Since they were originally a British creation, he probably thought it was the least he could do to make amends.  But the precedent he tried to set was too little too late and overturned forthwith by his successors. Consultation Document drafters were obviously not of a mind to revive it.

Consultation Document drafters also seemed to be entertaining few thoughts about reforming the Geographical Constituencies … except whether their number should be “adjusted” from the present five election districts.  The document wants only to know if the number of Geographical Constituencies and seats within them should be changed.  There are no suggestions (Question 3).

The possibility of moving back from proportional representation to the original British formula of a simple majority electoral system is also not mentioned.  But if taken literally, the open-ended Question 3  might herald such a change.  For example, the number of districts might be increased to create 35 small constituencies, each with a single seat.  A simple first-past-the-post vote count in each district could determine the winning candidate therein, neatly dispensing with the complicated multiple-seat districts and single transferrable vote system of proportional representation now in effect.  The change would also place legislators back where they belong, in direct contact with their constituents instead of competing for factional loyalties and photo-op opportunities.  But the Consultation Document entertains no such possibilities … possibly because pro-Beijing forces have been so skillful at turning the current arrangements to their advantage, and pro-democracy politicians are allowing the system to defeat them.

STAGNATION

        Proof that the Consultation Document anticipates few changes in Legco is provided in the Legco chapter’s concluding sentence (p. 37), which dispenses with campaigners’ long-standing demand to abolish the council’s internal split voting procedure.  This was designed by Basic Law drafters in the late 1980s to serve as one final safeguard against the populist impulses of directly-elected Geographical Constituency legislators.  Hence all government bills and measures are voted on by Legco as a whole.  But any amendments or motions tabled from the floor by legislators themselves must be voted on separately by Legco’s “two-houses.”  The votes of Geographical Constituency legislators and FC legislators are counted separately; simple majorities of those present in each bloc are needed to pass all such initiatives.

Democracy campaigners have been protesting this rule since the Basic Law was promulgated.  But to no avail.  The Consultation Document closes the door on any change, signing off  with one final display of circular reasoning:  reform of  the dual voting rule will not be entertained until all Legco members are elected by universal suffrage.

Chapter four of  the Consultation Document on the 2016 Legco election deserves an “F” for failure and for not even trying.

 

*From the Dec. 29, 2007 decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which says that “after the Chief  Executive is selected by universal suffrage, the election of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may be implemented by the method of electing all the members by universal suffrage.”  Reprinted in Annex I of the Consultation Documentwww.2007.gov.hk .

 

pepper@cuhk.edu.hk

 

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