Broken system of governance ensures conflict reigns supreme

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Hong Kong was ranked 80 out of 167 in The Economist's democracy index for 2011 and classified as a 'hybrid regime'. It is neither one thing nor the other - not yet a democracy, but with some democratic trappings. Herein lies the problem.

One of those 'trappings' is undoubtedly the rule of law - an independent judiciary separate from the executive and legislative branches of government. It is perhaps the most important contribution from the British colonial period. The courts cannot be dictated to by the chief executive, the police or the Security Bureau - they stand as an independent voice.

But the other branches of government are a mess - and we can also thank the British for that, although the Chinese leadership during the 1980s can be implicated, too. Filibustering by some Legislative Council members is the latest example of a broken political system. Frustrated at being asked to endorse the administration's legislation, thousands of amendments were introduced to prevent the vote being taken. This does nothing to advance the cause of democracy, but it does show that the current system is in trouble.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the attempts by various committees to hold up the restructuring of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's new administration. The only power Legco has on this matter is a financial one and it used it to delay endorsement of the new structure.

This is unheard of in a democracy where the structure of government is up to the government of the day. But, in Hong Kong, it is the only way some legislators can exert an influence over the incoming government. It is twisted democracy.

The roots of the problem are far deeper than holding up restructuring plans; the issue is one of legitimacy. The new administration is the result of a small-circle election for the chief executive in which the majority of Hong Kong people were excluded.

Thus, in the minds of pan-democratic legislators, the administration is fair game and any tactic that can draw attention to the inadequacy of the system is seen as legitimate. Yet, it signals a broken system that consistently creates conflict rather than consensus. Indeed, the way in which the executive and legislative branches of government are constructed ensures that conflict will reign.

The composition of Legco also ensures conflict will dominate its internal workings. Legislators are either for or against the administration of the day - larger issues, such as what is best for the people and Hong Kong, get lost in petty and personal squabbles.

So, how to fix the broken system? What became so clear during the election campaign for the chief executive were its similarities with Western-style democratic politics. Heated media speculation, 'secrets' revealed, public debates and a good deal of acrimony.

Hong Kong experienced all the election brouhaha, but with the anti-climax of a small-circle election.

In this case, it is quite likely that a democratic election would have yielded the same result. However, the small-circle election ensures doubts about legitimacy and such doubts gave rise to the circus we have seen in Legco over the past month.

Hong Kong needs a democratically elected chief executive and legislature with checks and balances on allocated powers overseen by an independent judiciary. The latter is in place - the rest is yet to come. But come it must if some sanity is to be restored to Hong Kong's political system.

There is no single model of democratic governance - compare the US, Australia, France and Britain. Leaders can be in or out of the legislature, voting can be on a proportional basis, preferential or first past the post. There can be divisions between heads of state and frontline political workers like prime ministers. The one thing a democratic government ensures is what Hong Kong's government currently lacks - legitimacy.

Democracy will not solve all Hong Kong's problems, but it will ensure that an elected government can work on behalf of the people.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is co-director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education