Universal suffrage

Polls apart

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am

As we ponder Hong Kong's constitutional future, it would be useful to take a pragmatic view of the kind of government needed to survive today's increasingly volatile political environment. The special administrative region's government, though not elected democratically, is neither dictatorial nor as authoritarian as the former colonial administration. Instead, it has sought to be popular and responsible within the bounds of the Basic Law and the executive-led doctrine inherited from British days.

Against the emerging ethos of democracy, and having no votes in the legislature, it has become vulnerable politically even though its overall performance is comparable to many developed democratic nations.

In the absence of democracy, public opinion has been used as a substitute, especially for political and policy agitations - such as regular public opinion polls and mass mobilisation in protest rallies - so much so that counting the number of protesters has become a political art of its own. The resignation of five pan-democrat lawmakers, to trigger a by-election to promote the cause of universal suffrage, is just an extension of this logic.

No government can afford to govern by opinion polls alone. If they could, we would not need to have representative government; just conducting polls or referendums every day would suffice.

Democracy through the ballot box does not necessarily guarantee effective government: some critics blame US President Barack Obama for failing to deliver policy changes even though the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. It does, however, give decision makers a stable period with a public mandate to make decisions on behalf of the community. Sometimes a government has to bite the bullet and be unpopular for a while.

Caring too much about opinion ratings creates the risk of focusing excessively on short-term thinking.

In Hong Kong, there have long been two opposing strands of thinking about constitutional reform. One, the establishment view, seeks to ensure that the system continues to be executive-led for the sake of effective government; the other strives for bottom-up government accountability to the citizenry - hence the demand for universal suffrage and various checks and balances.

These two forces need not be mutually exclusive. The British Westminster model provides for political stability through government commanding a parliamentary majority.

In the American system, despite a separation of powers, the president leads the nation's policy agenda and ideally does not give way to government-by-Congress.

More than a decade after reunification, it is increasingly clear that Hong Kong's old-style, executive-led logic inherited from the colonial days has become dysfunctional. In order to have the legitimacy to lead, the government needs a democratic mandate. This is the most practical reason why Beijing has finally agreed to the 2017 timetable for electing the chief executive by universal suffrage.

When functional constituencies were introduced in the mid-1980s - as the British administration introduced partial representative government - they were intended as a transitional mechanism. Their purpose was to enable major business and professional interests, previously incorporated through appointment, to remain represented in the legislature and to continue supporting the administration before the onset of full democracy.

However, a quarter of a century later, instead of providing a step towards universal suffrage, functional constituencies have become entrenched.

Mainstream opinion in Hong Kong cannot accept part of the legislature being divided up among some preordained business and professional sectors. This is not to deny their importance. But instead of hanging on to functional constituency seats, it would pay for them to seek to influence and get recognised by major parties, as their counterparts do so successfully in democratic countries.

Functional constituency legislators are not necessarily the government's natural allies, as officials find themselves spending as much time lobbying these non-aligned politicians as organised party groups. It would seem more conducive to efficient, executive-legislative relations if the government instead built its legislative majority by cultivating its own party and, if necessary, forging a legislative coalition.

The 1990s view that the chief executive should not belong to any political party is proving unsustainable. A democratic system must assign a proper role to parties engaged in competitive politics.

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