Political interest in skirting the issues

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 1998, 12:00am

Elections mirror the mood of a society. Two years ago, the United States put economic comfort above ethical questions to re-elect Bill Clinton. A year ago, Britain showed its overwhelming desire for change by giving Labour a huge parliamentary majority. Equally, media coverage of elections is a pretty good barometer of what interests the public.

On both counts, the first SAR elections are something of an oddity. What are people concerned about? The economy, the value of their assets, housing, employment prospects.

And what have most of the exchanges between candidates for Legco been about? Very little of the above; much more about personal jibes and the raking over of old coals.

Even given the importance of human rights, the various Democrat attacks on the DAB's voting record hardly addresses the issues at the forefront of voters' minds. The same applies in reverse for the DAB's attacks on the way some Democrats let their right of abode status slip their minds.

The relative absence of class-based politics in Hong Kong may be a sign of maturity. But it inevitably leads to a disinclination to take up positions that could alienate any social group.

The outcome is an election campaign in which most politicians in the geographical constituencies have every interest in sidestepping major issues that could lose them votes.

For instance, framing a policy on housing to appeal both to workers longing for a huge expansion of affordable accommodation and middle-class voters worried about the declining value of their property investment is enough to torture the mind of even the most subtle electoral brain.

Or trying to meld faith in the free market system with a desire by voters for something to be done about unemployment is to try to marry extremes. (Candidates in functional constituencies, of course, have an easier life, being free to concentrate on straight sectional interests, and those standing in the Election Committee can focus their attention on their even more limited electorate).

This is one reason why these elections have been strangely absent from one place they would normally be expected to dominate - the front pages of newspapers. The rarity of page one election stories is a striking measure of how few real issues are being debated in the campaign.

The comparison with 1995 is instructive.

For all the best efforts of the Democrats, the China factor has receded into the background, and, with it, the urge to cast a sanction-vote towards Beijing. Unlike 1995, the election itself is not an issue: the arrangements this time may have been roundly criticised, but they are not the stuff of major confrontation between two governments.

Nor will the turnout be a quasi-referendum on the Chief Executive as the previous vote was on the last Governor. Indeed, the absence of a government party to vote for or against - taken with the limited powers which the new council will enjoy - means the election only serves to underline the gulf between the executive and the legislature.

Voters may well wonder just what they will be voting for if they turn out on Sunday. Individual candidates - yes. Mood-music political positions - yes. Actual policies which will change the society - no; those will come from elsewhere.

The public mood as expressed on May 24 will be a factor to be taken into consideration, but not the determining force. The question is how far the new Legco will truly mirror Hong Kong's state of mind 10 months on from the handover, and will provide a real counterweight to the executive in the two years ahead of it.