Apathy shrouds district polls

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 12:00am

Next Sunday's District Councils election has emerged to be the least covered by the news media since elected seats were introduced into these government advisory boards in 1982.

Like their readers, most newspaper editors have not attached much significance to the upcoming polls, even though it will be the first District Councils ballot exercise since the 1997 handover.

In the past, most papers would start carrying special features on each district in the week-long countdown to polling day. This, notable exceptions apart, is hardly the case this year.

Some pundits have noted that other breaking news, such as the conclusion of the Sino-US WTO talks and the Disney deal, had pre-empted the campaign stories, putting the media apathy down to sheer coincidence.

However, in-depth analyses of the political dynamics in the districts cannot be compiled within a day or two. This entails forward planning and redeployment of resources. Media gatekeepers are apparently not convinced the District Councils election is worthy of such trouble. This election has been much more difficult to sell than previous ones.

The last polls were held in 1994 at the height of the Sino-British row over the pace of democratic reform. In the absence of Beijing's blessings, former Governor Chris Patten insisted on opening up practically all the seats for universal suffrage.

Before the birth of the SAR, each district election could be interpreted as a step towards greater democracy. Only 132 members were returned to fill one-third of the seats in the 18 districts in 1982. The remainder were filled by government appointees and the 27 ex-officio members from the rural committees.

It took the colonial administration 12 years to get rid of the undemocratic appointment arrangement. The 346 District Board members elected in 1994, together with their rural committee colleagues, were given the added privilege to return 10 Legislative Councillors in 1995.

Nonetheless, the current District Councils election has been billed as a major setback for the SAR on its bumpy road to democracy. About one-fifth of the total 519 slots are reserved for appointment by the Chief Executive. Voter preferences are bound to be diluted by those handpicked by Tung Chee-hwa. Reporters had indulged themselves in predicting which political party could manage to take over what district in previous election coverage.

The resurrection of the appointment system has spoiled much of their fun, as no single political force is expected to dominate any of the councils.

The November 28 polls are to be conducted against another undemocratic backdrop. The Provisional Urban and Regional councils are doomed to be demolished next year. Most papers have assigned a couple of reporters to cover both the municipal and district bodies. Now that the former are to be scrapped, some editors are considering abolishing the beat all together.

It is not only the election for the District Councils that has failed to arouse media attention. The future supposedly upgraded District Councils themselves are also in danger of being deserted by the press.

Officials may have to think ahead on how to boost the news value of the councils before they are swept into oblivion. One way to do this is for the authorities to table some of the more contentious issues before the councils for consultation at their first sittings next January.

Potential topics of public interest range from the proposed land departure tax to how to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law on crimes against the state. This may not fall squarely within the four primary functions of the district-based bodies, but officials have done it before, notably during the infancy of the district administration scheme. It is perhaps time they did it again.

Andy Ho is a political commentator