No excuse for not voting with city's future at stake

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am

The lead-up to the Legislative Council election today does not appear to have generated much enthusiasm. The performance of many candidates at election forums has been lacklustre, and compared to previous Legco elections the political climate is calm. There is no burning issue. But it would be a mistake to think that the stakes in today's polls are low.

Lawmakers elected today will be responsible for vetting and approving constitutional changes to be introduced for the election of the chief executive and the legislature in 2012. These interim, but important changes will pave the way to universal suffrage, which the central government has promised for the chief executive's election in 2017 and said may be introduced in 2020 for Legco elections. Though the dates for full democracy set out by Beijing are welcome, the most serious work lies ahead. The newly elected legislators will have an onerous responsibility to realise the community's aspiration for universal suffrage and shape the new system.

A government taskforce is now working on constitutional proposals. Whatever these turn out to be, they are guaranteed to generate intense debate and discussion within the community. This is why the pan-democratic camp is desperate to retain at least 21 seats in Legco. Votes from more than a third of the 60 legislators are needed to block any constitutional package put forward by the government. Securing 21 seats or more would ensure that the approval of democrats would be needed for any proposal. For the same reason, government-friendly candidates are determined to stop them.

Despite the high stakes, the election campaigns have, so far, been remarkably uneventful. Strangely, the biggest controversy has not been about any candidate or political party, but over how academics' exit polls should be conducted. Exit polling can be a valuable means of studying demographics, voting patterns and preferences; it clearly serves a purpose in any free society. Election rules prohibit the public release of exit poll results until voting has been completed, to avoid influencing electors. However, there are fears that results will be leaked prematurely to candidates and their supporters, who may be able to exploit the data and refine their campaign strategies. Six polling groups have been registered. To ensure free and fair elections, they must act responsibly. Pollsters must ensure they properly identify themselves when questioning voters and make sure their results are credible.

In the past, candidates have often been identified either as government supporters or critics, pro-establishment or pro-democracy. But, these distinctions have become increasingly blurred. Beijing's promise of universal suffrage means the pace of democratic reform is not an election issue. Meanwhile, the government, with its declining popularity has, at times, led many of its supporters in Legco to distance themselves from it - or even turn against it - where questionable policies are concerned.

Our city is at a crossroads on the long road to full democracy. The electorate is mature and sophisticated. Our political parties are changing with the times and becoming more familiar with the democratic process. Universal suffrage is in sight. We must, therefore, play our part in helping Hong Kong develop as it heads towards a fully democratic system. Let us all exercise our democratic right and go to the polls today, whoever we choose to vote for. A clean, orderly election with a big turnout would serve our city well.