Questions unanswered as the voters stay away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 September, 2008, 12:00am

Voter turnout is a critical factor in any democratic election. What set yesterday's election apart from other Legco polls was that no recent political event weighed heavily on voter sentiment. Perhaps this is why only 45 per cent of voters cast their ballots, the second-lowest turnout since the handover, after the 43.7 per cent recorded in 2000. It remains to be seen what the low turnout means to the makeup of the next Legislative Council - in particular whether the pan-democratic camp will win enough seats to have a say on constitutional reform. But it is disappointing that fewer than half the registered voters elected the lawmakers who will be responsible for approving changes for the election of the chief executive and the legislature in 2012, paving the way for universal suffrage.

The low turnout has contributed to a rather remarkable phenomenon - almost every candidate said they were in danger of losing. Throughout yesterday, they made every effort to flush out voters, but their calls largely went unheeded. Perhaps voters felt there were no burning issues over which their votes would nudge things forward one way or the other.

Both the central and Hong Kong governments have apparently done what they can to neutralise potentially controversial issues that might have influenced voting intentions. Over much of the past two decades, the pace of democratisation has been the main dividing line between the so-called Beijing-friendly and pro-democracy camps. However, following Beijing's pledge that Hong Kong people could elect the chief executive and all legislators by popular elections in 2017 and 2020 respectively, universal suffrage was no longer the main issue. Other issues that might have aroused emotions, including health-care financing and the future of RTHK, had been shelved until after the election.

On their part, the political parties have been smart in distancing themselves from the government's political troubles, such as the row over political appointees' nationalities and salaries, the confusion over the suspension of the domestic helpers' levy and the conflict-of-interest controversy over approval for a former housing chief to accept a post-retirement job with a property developer.

These factors meant yesterday's election broke a pattern of significant events dominating campaign agendas, usually in favour of the pro-democracy camp. The 1991 poll came two years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, when anti-Beijing sentiment was still strong. In 1995, there was uncertainty about the future ahead of the handover. In 1998, an election to replace a provisional Legco of Beijing appointees saw pro-democracy candidates returned. In 2000, the political temperature was relatively low, but was stoked by the scandal over then vice-chairman of the then Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, Gary Cheng Kai-nam, who was accused of abusing his legislative post for commercial gain. The 2004 poll took place in a charged atmosphere after the July 1 anti-government mass rally the previous year.

This time there have been no comparable events that might have spurred voters to use their ballots to send a significant message to the government. Perhaps yesterday's turnout, comparable to that recorded in 2000, could be considered the 'norm' for Hong Kong at its current stage of political development. Regrettably, we may never be able to tell if this is the case as even exit polls, which could help shed light on why people voted, have been discredited over the past week by suspicions over the real motives of some dubious pollsters.