Public problems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 1995, 12:00am

SUNDAY, September 17, 1995 has been designated as the polling day for the last set of elections to be administered by the British authorities in Hong Kong, before China resumes sovereignty over the territory.

This means that aspirants eyeing the 60 Legislative Council seats on offer are only left with less than six months to mount their campaign. Not only politicians are faced with a tight canvassing schedule, even electoral officials are racing against time to prepare for the historic ballot exercise.

The introduction of nine new functional constituencies for the 2.7 million-strong working population has turned out to be a major source of technical difficulties.

Registration for the newly enfranchised functional voters, for instance, has been less than satisfactory. The Registration and Electoral Office wrote to all 700,000 business set-ups, asking them to tender basic information on their staff members.

At the latest count, only 140,000 had responded. The number of prospective electors covered adds up to about 1.2 million.

The tally does not include the Government, which is the biggest employer in town. However, even if all the 190,000 civil servants are taken on board, the registration rate could just reach the 50 per cent threshold.

The figure will be trailing over 10 percentage points behind the average for the 20 geographical constituencies.

A total of 2.45 million, or 62 per cent, of the 3.96 million eligible voters for the district-based polls signed up for the two municipal councils elections earlier this month.

In fact, many of the public comments on electoral arrangements have so far stemmed from the nine additional functional elections, which have no precedent elsewhere, but are doomed to be abolished in 1997.

The Government's proposal to set the campaign expenditure ceiling for this type of election at $180,000 has been denounced as impractical by the main parties.

Questions have also been raised about whether those vying for the nine functional slots should be given equal access to display their publicity materials on the streets as their counterparts for the geographical seats.

As a result, there may well be more than 40 candidates applying to have their banners and posters hoisted at busy spots, such as those outside the major MTR stations.

The independent Boundary and Election Commission will tomorrow unveil a consultation document on how the Legco polls should be conducted. The issue of how to strike a balance between facilitating and regulating the campaigns of candidates for the new functional seats are bound to become a focal point of debate.

Prospective candidates for the new functional offices have complained about the practical difficulties in disseminating their election messages. Unlike the geographical candidates, they have to reach out to an elusive electorate whose members are scattered around the territory.

It has been suggested that the Government should allow candidates to have easier access to make use of the electronic media.

In a submission to the Commission and the Constitutional Affairs Branch, Legislative Councillor Mr Henry Tang Ding-yen demanded that the Government approach the commercial television stations to secure adequate publicity slots for candidates.

He noted that a total of 670 minutes of air time per week are now allocated to Government-run Radio Television Hong Kong by the four commercial terrestrial TV channels.

On the assumption that the elections will attract a pool of over 200 hopefuls, Mr Tang observed, the present broadcasting space for the Government could hardly accommodate the large number of campaign messages.

At present, the broadcasters are also required to carry one minute of announcements of public interest (API) for every hour of programming. Mr Tang wanted such API slots to be reserved for candidates to propagate their platforms during the campaign period. A more controversial idea is to relax the current ban on political advertising on the radio and television.

Under the current codes of practice, broadcasters are not allowed to air political commercials.

A few years ago, the United Democrats wanted to place an advert to publicise a fund-raising concert for the party. But the order was rejected by Commercial Radio, lest it would violate the licensing terms.

'There are no provisions in the law,' the Commission points out, 'allowing candidates to advertise in the electronic media to promote their candidature.' It has, however, failed to give a categorical clarification that there are provisions banning such adverts.

Some may even argue that the Bill of Rights Ordinance has provided ample grounds to challenge any regulations to bar proper campaign messages from being broadcast.

One argument against the case is that allowing campaign commercials will favour wealthy candidates. Yet this does not seem to hold water as, unlike the American elections, local candidates have to honour a limit on campaign spending.

If contestants opt for TV commercials, they must spend less on other conventional means of publicity such as flyers. In any case, candidates are allowed to place advertisements in newspapers, but this too can be expensive.

In some of the European democracies with a strong tradition of public broadcasting, air time is allotted to the parties. Macau, which models on the Portuguese electoral system, also set aside prime slots for participating groups during campaigns. The parties are free to produced their material for broadcasts.

In the case of Britain, Party Election Broadcasts (PEB) on BBC can be traced to the 1951 general elections.

In recent years, renowned directors have been engaged to help improve the parties' images. Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson and Mike Newell, who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral, have helped the Labour party. John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy, on the other hand, filmed the Tories' John Major - The Journey, in 1992.

The rights to disseminate political messages aside, campaign advertising on the electronic media will definitely liven up Hong Kong's final elections under British rule.