Complex voting system requires review

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 July, 2004, 12:00am

The first week of the election campaign has been dominated not by the issues but by tactics and strategies. For this, we have our complicated voting system to blame. With political reform now on the agenda, it is time to consider a change.

Since nominations opened, all the talk has been of lists, the ranking of candidates and tactical voting. The competing camps have been carefully negotiating their way around the system, trying to work out how to maximise their vote. At times, it has been a baffling exercise.

Those who voted in the last two legislative council elections will now be familiar with these arrangements, which apply to the five geographical constituencies.

This is our own form of proportional representation. We vote for a list of candidates, ranked by their party. And teams with the same political leanings are often pitted against each other in multi-seat constituencies.

It is a system which raises tactical dilemmas. A party can place all its stars on a single list and hope it proves to be so popular each of them wins a seat. Or they can split them into different lists, believing that each of these will have its own appeal.

The difficulties are probably best illustrated by the case of pro-democracy candidate Alan Leong Kah-kit, who is standing on his own in Kowloon East. He is tipped for victory. But if he proves too popular he will draw votes away from other pro-democracy lists and possibly lose them seats. Mr Leong, it seems, is in the unenviable position of being required to win precisely 13 per cent of the vote. This is just one of the perversities of the system.

All voting arrangements have their problems. The first-past-the-post method used in 1995 is the simplest and most direct - but not necessarily the most representative. A more sophisticated form of proportional representation would allow voters - rather than parties - to rank the candidates, giving them more choice. The downside is that this would be even more complex than the system we have at the moment.

There are, however, strong arguments in favour of reviewing the way in which we vote in the geographical constituencies.

The proportional representation system was introduced after the handover. It was proposed by the Preparatory Committee, favoured by Tung Chee-hwa and introduced by the Provisional Legislature. Hardly any effort was made to consult the people of Hong Kong. Polls conducted at the time showed the majority to be in favour of keeping the first-past-the-post system. Only a month before the proportional representation system was first used, in 1998, one survey indicated 80 per cent of voters did not understand it. Given its complex nature, this is not surprising.

There was also a widespread perception - which the government denies - that the new system was being introduced in order to frustrate the democrats, as pro-democracy candidates had done well in the 1995 election.

Two elections later, these concerns have eased, although they have not gone away. People are more familiar with the system. And the democrats have shown themselves capable of adapting - and succeeding - with proportional representation.

But it would be a serious omission if the voting system was not reviewed as part on the ongoing political reform process. The consultation paper released by the government does not highlight this as one of the areas which might be changed. But it does not rule it out either.

We have started on a process of reform which will shape our city's political system for the future. The voting format for geographical constituencies should be reformed as part of that exercise so that it fits in with other arrangements. The current system, for example, does not further the development of strong political parties. We may, in the end, decide to keep proportional representation, for all its faults. But the people of Hong Kong should be given a say.