Parties should rank own candidates

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 1998, 12:00am

A survey by the Journalism Department of Hong Kong Baptist University found that 80 per cent of the respondents could not correctly name the proportional representation electoral system to be used in the upcoming Legislative Council election.

In response, Electoral Affairs Commission chairman Justice Woo Kwok-hing said it did not matter that people could not name the electoral system, because voters only needed to vote for their favourite candidates.

He has a point, although this should not be taken to mean a knowledge of the electoral system is not important. What can be said is, with the kind of list-voting system used in Hong Kong, voters do not seem to need to know too much about the technicalities.

Under the system, each elector can only vote for one list of candidates. In practice, they cast their ballots for the list which contains the names of their favourite candidates. Even if their candidate is not ranked first on the list, the votes they cast for this candidate will go to support his colleagues from the same political party who should share his views.

Knowing the technicalities of the voting system would have been far more important if some other system, such as the 'multiple-seat, one-vote system' (MSOVS), were used. MSOVS envisaged Hong Kong carved into a number of constituencies. Each constituency would return more than one legislator, but each voter would have only one vote. The candidates who had the highest numbers of votes would be elected.

The system was favoured by the Preparatory Committee because it was certain to weaken the representation of the democrats in the legislature. This was because although the candidate, most probably a democrat, may have had the highest number of votes, he would only gain one seat. The second and even third-most popular candidates, likely to be from the pro-Beijing camp, would also be elected, even though the number they had was far less.

Had the MSOVS been adopted, a lot of votes received by the most popular democrat would have been 'wasted' in they would fail to benefit other less well-known democrats.

Before the MSOVS was formally dropped from the agenda, the Democratic Party was understood to have drawn up a strategy to teach voters how to vote should it be adopted. Husbands and wives, for example, were to be encouraged to 'split' their votes, with men asked to vote for Democrat A and women Democrat B in the same constituency so 'vote wastage' could be reduced.

As things turned out, the strategy did not need to be put into action because the list-voting proportional representation system was adopted. The focus of criticisms, however, then shifted to the fact the candidates on the same list had to rank themselves.

Forcing candidates to rank themselves is criticised for fuelling political parties' internal disputes. For example, the Democratic Party's public image of solidarity was shattered by rows over the ranking of Chan Wai-yip in New Territories West constituency and Tse Wing-ling in New Territories East constituency. Both were former legislators but were not ranked first.

It is also argued that voters, not the parties, should rank the candidates. The criticism has merits, admitted Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that having voters rank the candidates would remove internal party disputes over nominations. Under any electoral system the parties must have a mechanism to decide which members will run. There will always be disputes over who they will be. The parties cannot shun the responsibility of selecting whom they consider to be the best candidates.