Democracy in action

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 September, 2007, 12:00am

People who wish democracy ill in Hong Kong have lost no time in jeering the pan-democrats' 'failure' to agree on a candidate for December's by-election. They see it as yet another sign of disunity and lack of leadership. I take a different view: I consider this a great learning opportunity, and I am glad the process has been open and transparent. That way it's an opportunity for all, since the Hong Kong public as well as its politicians can best learn about the democratic process by experience.

Democracy is not just about getting what some elitist group believes to be the right people into power. It is, even more, about a fair and open procedure for making decisions. It is about fair and open competition, with equal opportunity for all who may wish to come forward. It is about each candidate trying to persuade the electorate by reason and giving voters a choice. It is about a rational process of considering options and reaching a consensus, in peace and good order, on the basis of equal respect.

This emphasis on peaceful procedure and equality distinguishes democracy from tyranny. Tyrants and autocrats invariably believe themselves to be the best and fittest to rule. Therefore, they regard all participatory processes with mistrust and contempt.

Their aim is not to facilitate fair and open procedure, but to ensure that any unavoidable participatory process will not be allowed to affect the final outcome - already pre-determined by the self-appointed wise and the good. To reduce the chance of mishap, they always prefer secrecy; being honest with the public is seldom considered the best policy.

Indeed, the convoluted approach of the government's green paper on constitutional development reveals its true colours - in its resemblance not to democracy but its opposite.

By contrast, the pan-democrats not only declare their belief in democracy, but are also practising it in their approach to the by-election. No one should be discouraged from putting himself or herself forward as a candidate. At the same time, everyone who runs must be prepared to be critically assessed. It is clearly in the interest of the pan-democrats to put their united force behind a single candidate, because this provides the greatest chance to win. The obvious step now is to devise a selection process with fair and objective criteria that is open to all.

Testing candidates through a popularity poll could be one approach - or one element of the selection process. But there are also many other ways or elements that can be considered. The discussion about finding the right process is itself a valuable process, through which democrats learn and work together.

By law, of course, the by-election is open to anyone who is eligible. So anyone who chooses not to seek the pan-democrats' support - or even those who lose in the selection process - may still stand.

This is the obvious difference between such a democratic process and the screening mechanisms suggested in the green paper for the election of the chief executive. It says that no one screened out by the nomination committee is allowed to be a chief executive candidate.

In the last chief executive election, the Civic Party put forward Alan Leong Kah-kit as a candidate. The party's timing was designed to allow for some form of 'primary' contest to take place among all the candidate-hopefuls from democratic groups and individuals who joined hands in the venture.

That was done even though members of the pan-democratic camp knew that no other candidate was likely to emerge. It seemed natural that Mr Leong should have a go at it, just as the Democratic Party's former chairman, Lee Wing-tat, made his attempt on the previous occasion. But there was no question of their taking turns.

Moreover, on that occasion, it was a foregone conclusion that the democrats' candidate would lose. Even so, we took the process very seriously. This time we are talking about a real by-election, and there is no reason to be less serious.

Let's assume that the pan-democrats come up with a proper and workable procedure for choosing the joint candidate. Imagine that they all work as hard in the campaign as if the candidate were from their party. Then, whatever the outcome of the by-election, the democrats - and democracy for Hong Kong - will have advanced.

Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a legislator representing the legal profession and a founding member of the Civic Party