How to crack the political codes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Politics is crucial; in a well-functioning society, politicians draft and pass policies that affect us. And to make sure those policies reflect what we want, we vote for politicians who best represent us. But this is not always straightforward, because politicians polish their speeches with difficult words and complicated sentences. They also use various strategies to win over the voters. All these make politics confusing, and because of that, people find it hard to vote wisely. Understanding political language is, therefore, important.

Of late, Hong Kong has provided a conducive environment for those wanting to learn about politics. Led by Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip, People Power - a pro-democracy party - launched a political tussle in the Legislative Council early last month. They used a strategy called filibustering - or 'pulling clothes' in Cantonese. It is not a common word, but if you want to know more about policies, and how they may affect you, it is something that you need to know.

To understand politics, one has to first get to grips with all the words and expressions used by politicians and the media. This week, we will take a look at some brain-teasing vocabulary, and frequently-used political strategies.

Filibuster

It is a political strategy used to delay the passage of legislation. A filibuster is usually carried out in two ways. First, legislators give long speeches. Members of the filibustering party will do whatever they can to extend their speeches. For example, Wong Yuk-man talked very slowly when discussing the by-election bill in the Legislative Council last month. But there are restrictions: the speaker can't repeat what he has already said, or base his speech on irrelevant things.

Second, lawmakers can submit hundreds of amendments for a bill. Since legislators have to go through every proposed change before a bill is passed, the discussions can drag on for a long time.

Filibusters are mostly used by small political parties. To reject a bill, they need more than half of the legislators to vote against it. In most cases, they simply can't achieve that. But by filibustering, they can jam the legislative process, forcing the bill to be shelved to make way for discussion on other issues.

Not every country allows filibustering - Australia, for example, limits the time each lawmaker can talk.

Pork barrel

To win votes, politicians or political parties will sometimes adopt policies directed exclusively at a certain group of people - this is called pork barrelling. The beneficiaries can be the upper, middle or lower class, or some interest groups, such as the business sector. The benefits vary from building new infrastructure to tax cuts.

Pork-barrel politics usually occurs when an election is around the corner, and the ruling party is desperate to win votes. Political parties who use such methods are often criticised because they are using valuable resources to help a small group of people. In many cases, the motives are purely driven by politics - to win the votes of a targeted group which cannot normally be reached by the party's agenda.

Gridlock

It usually means a huge traffic jam, but the term 'gridlock' is also widely used in political debates. It describes 'legislative congestion' when parties fail to reach a consensus, and they cannot proceed with the legislation. For example, Hong Kong is currently experiencing a gridlock on chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's government restructuring plan. Another example is Greece, where politicians are divided on whether their country should stick to the austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, or leave the eurozone. Following Sunday's elections, Greece still does not have a party with a majority of seats in parliament.

Lobbying

A decision regarding the approval of a policy comes down to whether it benefits the public or not.

The ideal scenario is when the government consults the people and formulates policies in line with public opinion. However, most of the time this is not the only factor shaping policies; politicians are also influenced by the business sector and interest groups which fight for policies that favour them. Their attempts to change the government's mind is called lobbying.

Lobbyists perform their tricks in different ways. First, they try to sway public opinion by organising campaigns and placing advertisements in the media. Once the public has a change of heart, they can persuade the government to change its mind.

Second, they file lawsuits against the government. Lobbyists may win the court case, ensuring a policy cannot be implemented. At the very least, lawsuits can extend the legislative process and make it more costly. Eventually, the government may have to scrap the bill.

Political parties also face pressure from interest groups who fund their campaigns. Their funds could be cut, if they enact policies opposed by these organisations.

Political suicide

No one has to die in a political suicide. But some may lose their jobs, and a party could lose its supporters. It happens when a politician or political party makes an unpopular move just before an election - introducing tough policies or changing the party's stance, for instance.

Though unpopular, the policy may not necessarily be bad. The problem is it leaves little time for the party to regroup, or to prove it is right, before heading into the next election.

Horse race politics

To add a sense of excitement to the political coverage, the media likes to depict an election as a horse race. During the election, news reports feature candidates who are leading the race, with lots of polls and charts comparing their popularity. Rather than explain policies, these reports tend to criticise the parties and their stance.

Media critics say horse-race reporting is unhealthy because opposing voices are always magnified - even though they may represent a tiny section of society. Comments from candidates are also rarely included.

Coalition

The term 'coalition' is becoming more and more common these days. Britain is now governed by a coalition. Greece failed to form one after its election in May, and so had to hold new elections on Sunday.

A coalition is a partnership among political parties which share similar beliefs. By teaming up, parties stand a better chance of forming a government. At the 2010 general election in Britain, no single party managed to win enough parliamentary seats to form a government. As a result, the Conservative Party teamed up with the Liberal Democrats to form a new government.

Spin doctor

Integrity is everything in politics. When politicians and political parties make mistakes that damage their reputations, they need to mend the situation as soon as possible. Spin doctors give advice to politicians on how to maintain their image; they teach politicians how to act and what gestures to make, and draft scripts that can calm public anger.