The cost of split votes
Although campaigning for next month's Legislative Council election has only just got underway, there are already calls for a review of the proportional representation system for the geographical constituencies.
A major complaint is that under the current 'list system', voters are deprived of the opportunity to choose the one candidate they like because they vote for a list of candidates, who are ranked by the party or group which drew it up. In fact, many commentators have long pointed out that the system has also bred a host of other problems, one of which is intensifying intra-party competition.
Experience of the 1998 and 2000 Legco elections were that the system tended to lead to disputes over candidates' ranking, as those low on a list were less likely to get elected. The jostling for a higher position led to hostile competition among party members. Even 'list-splitting', with star candidates from the same party or group running as separate lists, could not provide a total solution, as internal feuds over who should campaign in which neighbourhood in the same constituency remain.
For all these problems, however, it is interesting to note that seven candidates from the pan-democracy camp have decided to run under one list in the New Territories East constituency, even as their colleagues in other constituencies are running on separate lists to maximise the chances of individual victories.
If, as the candidates hope, this so-called 'diamond list' succeeds in winning seats for its top four candidates by securing 55 per cent of the vote, or five seats with 65 per cent of the vote, then it would challenge the view that the current system is not conducive to intra-party or intra-group harmony. The unknown factor is how many voters will opt for other lists because they do not like one or more of the 'diamonds'.
Another significant feature of this election is the growing number of candidates running as independents. When the proportional representation system was first mooted, a major concern was that it might force independent candidates to seek support from established political groups. This was based on the assumption that competition would be among lists of candidates and that each political group or party would put up only one list.
As things turned out, by allowing anyone to run on his or her own, or with other candidates on a list, the system has not suppressed the ambitions of independent candidates. Non-affiliated Andrew Wong Wang-fat, for example, has been elected twice, and is still going strong.
This year, apart from Mr Wong, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, Lau Chin-shek, Alan Leong Kah-kit, Albert Cheng King-hon and Albert Chan Wai-yip are some of the more high-profile candidates not affiliated with or getting support from major political parties. But polls have found that they stand a good chance of getting elected, as voters are largely drawn by their personal appeal.
Indeed, the Hong Kong experience is that anyone who has managed to build up a good public image can use it to pursue a political career without joining the established parties. For one thing, the local media is very open and fair.
There is no doubt, however, that the system does not encourage the formation of powerful political parties, as mavericks can survive on their own. A legislature comprising many bickering splinter groups may suit the interests of an executive-led government led by a chief executive who is not directly elected by the people and has no formal links with any legislators. But over the long term, this may not be the ideal system as we move towards the ultimate goal of universal suffrage.
C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy