Out for the count

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am

In the recent Legislative Council election, the voter turnout rate fell to 45.2 per cent, more than 10 percentage points lower than the peak of 55.64 per cent in the previous election, in 2004. It was roughly on a par with the low 43.57 per cent registered in the 2000 poll. In terms of numbers, 1.52 million people voted this year, 260,000 fewer than the 1.78 million who turned out in 2004.

Theoretically, the voter turnout rate and the number of voters should continue to increase as an electoral system gradually takes root. At least, this is the healthy trend that we would like to establish.

The government has certainly made voting easy. While polling stations close at 4pm in Taiwan, ours are open until 10.30pm. Hongkongers have very convenient access to information on the candidates. The community enjoys a high literacy rate and a satisfactory level of education. Hence, a turnout rate of less than 50 per cent is not satisfactory.

There was a record number of candidates in the latest election. With two new parties - the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats - an even broader political spectrum was established. The many independent candidates offered more choices for the electorate. So why has voter turnout declined?

In the 2004 election, the protests against the Article 23 national security legislation, as well as the push for universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive by 2007 and that of the entire legislature by 2008, ignited much political enthusiasm. The keen competition between the pro-establishment parties and the pro-democracy movement contributed much to the mobilisation of the electorate. In contrast, there were no burning campaign issues this year. Does this mean that 45 per cent or so should be accepted as the normal turnout rate in the city?

The pro-democracy groups appealed to their supporters to help secure at least 21 seats in the legislature, so they could retain a veto against the government's new political reform proposals. Whether the movement could maintain some bargaining power over political reform was certainly an important campaign issue, though universal suffrage and political reform did not occupy prominent places in the pro-democracy candidates' platforms. But, to the supporters of democracy, universal suffrage remained a very important campaign issue.

The political reality is discouraging to those who hold the democracy cause dear. It is very likely that it will be 2017 before the chief executive is chosen through direct elections. Even then, the nomination process remains a severe challenge. If the threshold is set so high that the pro-democracy movement cannot nominate a candidate, there will still be no genuine competition and no genuine choice.

If the democracy cause can no longer mobilise the majority of voters, what about livelihood issues? During the first years of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration, he concentrated on seeking a smooth re-election and avoided controversy. Proposals on the broadening of the tax base and the introduction of a value-added tax were shelved. Decisions on the formula to finance long-term hospital care were postponed. Indeed, there were no confrontational issues between the pro-establishment parties and their opponents.

Hong Kong people are, of course, very worried about inflation, employment and the economy. Yet they know the legislature can't do much. If oil prices continue to climb, and food stays expensive, we have to face high inflation. If there is a recession in the US and a slowdown in the Chinese economy, the local economy won't do well. There is a limit to what the government can achieve given the city's dependence on the outside world; and the community doesn't expect much from the legislature.

The administration was blessed with a budget surplus exceeding HK$100 billion this year, and it was able to give away 'sweeteners' to the community twice within six months. But Mr Tsang's popularity - and that of his administration - has been falling sharply. People's grievances have been accumulating, and they are not optimistic about Hong Kong's economic prospects.

The League of Social Democrats candidates' severe criticism of the government proved very popular. Yet the attacks between the political parties, including those among the pro-democracy groups during the campaign period, didn't help the community, which expected their problems to be understood and solved.

Most of the electorate voted to fulfil their civic duty, yet even this noble sense of responsibility has been in decline. Apathy towards elections is also a vote of no confidence in the entire political system. The legitimacy of the administration is a casualty, as well.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong