Ripples on the water

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 September, 2008, 12:00am

Much of the talk after the Legislative Council election has focused on the debacle of the Liberal Party, on the pro-establishment side, and the sudden rise of the radical League of Social Democrats on the pan-democratic side.

Commentators warn of the advent of a more difficult and pro-grass-roots legislature that will ignore business interests. Others feel alarmed that the Liberals' setback might induce stronger resistance from business sectors towards abolishing functional constituencies on Hong Kong's already arduous path towards full democracy.

Yet the election results have not upset the balance of power between the pro-establishment and pan-democratic camps in the legislature. For the 30 geographical seats elected by universal suffrage - given the proportional representation system and the long-standing 60:40 vote share between the two camps - the balance of power could hardly change. And there were very few surprises in the functional constituencies, where half the legislators were returned unopposed.

Still, legislative politics may no longer be business as usual. There has been greater intra-camp redistribution, due to fierce competition. Most parties fielded some younger and fresher faces to play the rejuvenation card; some were elected, and might bring new perspectives. The sudden dash for newness and change is partly encouraged by Senator Barack Obama's US presidential campaign.

One should not, however, exaggerate the impact of succession. Behind all the rhetoric about new faces, we have yet to discern the advent of a new type of politics. While there is no shortage of internet gadgets like YouTube and Facebook - and election forums organised by community organisations and the media - the election debates were long on high-sounding exhortations and media-grabbing utterances, but short on in-depth policy engagements.

This year, universal suffrage was no longer an election issue, given that Beijing has set out a timetable. Although candidates all played up various livelihood issues, this did not give rise to new, defining, issues in the election. Many candidates preferred to simply discredit the government and their rivals' integrity by whatever means, instead of coming up with better solutions for society's problems. The media preferred sound bites to serious policy debates

The long-standing Hong Kong-mainland fissure continues to polarise the political scene, making legislative elections a perennial proxy war between Beijing and the pro-democracy forces. Government bashing has become the preferred way of campaigning and, when it comes to the crunch, the same old politics of 'democracy vs Beijing' is played up.

All this feeds into a vicious cycle where legislative politics, though confrontational and rhetorical, could be easily trivialised, with a lot of hot air but limited substance.

In any society, 5 to 10 per cent of voters are bound to be very disgruntled and even radical. In Hong Kong, these form the support base of the League of Social Democrats.

It is positioned as a small protest party but has done well in the polls thanks to the proportional representation system and the growing frustration and cynicism of the population, including some young, middle-class people.

The perceived wisdom - that the government is under Beijing's influence and cannot be changed - has actually reinforced the trend to elect more critical and pro-democracy legislators, to make sure that the government behaves. With functional constituencies in place to 'protect' the business and professional sectors, ordinary people have become even more daring - voting in non-conformists, unionists and pro-grass-roots politicians in geographical direct elections - in order to balance business' power.

The Liberal Party's setback should not be seen, simplistically, as Hong Kong people rejecting pro-business values altogether. There are certainly growing public sentiments against big-business domination and any suspected government-business collusion.

Yet, there is no reason why, in any direct election, a conservative party standing for an unfettered free market and the business ethos could not secure a sizeable following, like the League of Social Democrats at the other end of the political spectrum.

It is time for the Liberal Party to rethink its positioning, and consider relaunching itself as a party of economic and social values rather than one of narrowly defined, business-sector interests.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank