Government becomes the election issue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am

More than a year before the September 7 Legislative Council polls, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had already set his sights on the election. Fearful of the spillover of elective politics, he moved to pull contentious issues off the political agenda.

The consultation on health care financing reform was split into two phases. In the first round, completed recently, the government gave no indication as to its preferred model, to avoid providing a platform from which critics could seek political mileage.

A number of controversial issues including a minimum wage, competition policy and the future of RTHK have been deferred until after the inauguration of the new Legco.

The National People's Congress Standing Committee made a surprise decision in December on a timetable for universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 and all members of the legislature in 2020.

While removing the veil of uncertainty over the introduction of universal suffrage, the Standing Committee's decision effectively made the campaign for dual universal suffrage in 2012 irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, universal suffrage has not figured prominently in the Legco election campaign, in marked contrast to previous geographical constituency elections.

Given that fact, one school of thought was that the election would focus on livelihood issues, particularly in view of inflationary pressures.

As if the multibillion-dollar tax cuts and subsidies in the budget in the spring were not enough, Mr Tsang then hastily pulled together another HK$11 billion economic relief package for the low-income and middle class folk.

With simmering public discontent taking its toll on the government's popularity, Mr Tsang was anxious to help pacify public discontent by showing that the administration had acted to ease their economic pain. By doing so, the government was hoping to moderate the socio-political atmosphere during the electioneering period.

With the traditional 'democracy card' marginalised, and livelihood issues seemingly tackled, pundits have observed that the Legco election could be an 'election with no issues'.

On the face of it, that analysis has a ring of truth. Election press reports over the past two weeks have mostly featured vote-canvassing gimmicks, infighting within political factions and clashes between candidates.

Even though certain political parties and candidates have published their own election platforms on various political and policy issues, their message on substantive issues has largely gone unnoticed.

In view of the long lists of candidates, and the constraint on media coverage under the election rules, it appears unlikely that specific political and policy issues will figure prominently. Admittedly, the major political parties have taken similar positions on livelihood issues and social policies such as education and conservation.

Against that background, there are growing signs that government-bashing might emerge as a major theme in the campaign period. For instance, the League of Social Democrats was contemplating whether to put the demand for Mr Tsang to stand down in its election platform.

From the political appointee row and the foreign maid levy, to matters such as the ageing fleet of ambulances, the political approach and quality of governance of the Tsang administration are likely to be high on the pan-democratic candidates' agenda.

With public dissatisfaction over governance and livelihood issues lingering, and government-friendly candidates unable to risk alienating voters by backing the administration, it would not be surprising if Mr Tsang and his team were to find themselves at the centre of criticism from all fronts in this free-for-all election battle.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.