The democracy time bomb

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2006, 12:00am

Almost two months have passed since the government's political reform package was voted down in the Legislative Council. Since then, both Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his cabinet officials have said the government will now concentrate on economic and social affairs, and that a new package on political reform will not be submitted within Mr Tsang's current term of office.

The Commission on Strategic Development's main role this year is, sadly, confined to studying the principles and concepts of universal suffrage. It goes without saying that discussion of Hong Kong's political reform blueprint has, in effect, come to a standstill apart from academic discussion of new political coinage among commission members.

This is a cause for concern because the stagnant situation, if left unchecked, may easily turn into a time bomb with an unexpected outcome created by potential mass grievances. The historic landslide victory of Hamas, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the Palestinian legislative election last month is a vivid and extreme example of the volatility of the choices of voters who have, for decades, been denied fair, impartial and clean elections.

In what was widely described as 'the most democratic election process that has ever happened in the Middle East', Hamas gained a parliamentary majority by having garnered 42.9 per cent of the vote to secure 74 out of 132 seats.

It left one pondering why a group, which is branded a terrorist organisation by Israel, Australia, Canada, the United States and the European Union, could win the hearts of so many voters and even get an absolute majority in the Palestinian parliament.

The lesson for Hong Kong from the 'unexpected' rise of Hamas is not that democracy is an untrustworthy ally. The lesson is that voters, who have been subject to decades of aggression, and even occupation, could turn into an extreme faction in a bid to vent deep-seated but long-suppressed despair, discontent and frustration towards a corrupt and autocratic government.

Hamas' victory may have stunned both Israel and the US but it is by no means difficult to understand the sentiments of Palestinians as they have, for decades, been deprived of both a homeland and a proper nation state. Many were desperate to have a say in shaping their society but had been deprived of a fair and proper electoral system or a proper channel to air their grievances. The Middle East case shows that Palestinian voters may have seen radical and violent methods of resistance as a lesser evil than non-violent resistance, and, therefore, turned their hopes to Hamas in the post-Yasser-Arafat era. Unlike the Palestinian-controlled areas, Hong Kong is a special administrative region which has a fair and impartial electoral system. Yet, the Tsang administration should bear in mind the danger of denying the public a channel to vent their grievances about the pace of democratisation.

Top officials in Beijing and Hong Kong should be aware that if the Hong Kong government drags its feet on the pace of democratisation for too long, there may be an unexpected outcome. A volcano of grievances may erupt when fully fledged democracy arrives. I sincerely urge the Tsang administration to refrain from putting political reform on hold for too long, or else they run the risk of detonating that time bomb.

Kennedy Wong Ying-ho is the deputy convenor of New Century Forum and a member of the Commission on Strategic Development