By-election follies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 April, 2010, 12:00am

The nomination period for the upcoming by-elections, or de facto referendum, triggered by the mass resignation of pro-democracy lawmakers is over. With 26 candidates in the running, the by-elections will take place next month no matter how many in the pro-Beijing and pro-establishment parties boycott them. The government says it will not recognise the election results either as a referendum or a de facto referendum. But legally it must go ahead with the polls.

If those opponents want to toe the central government's line and boycott the event, it's their choice. But trying to block it by pressuring the government to ban election-related campaigning or the display of roadside advertisements is illegal. Not only is this behaviour childish, it also contravenes the principles of 'one country, two systems'.

During last month's meetings of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, the anti-by-election lot vehemently opposed the polls. They joined the chorus of central government officials calling them illegal and unconstitutional. But instead of criticising the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats for instigating the political showdown, they pointed their accusatory fingers at the administration. One must question their motive.

Alan Hoo, chairman of the Basic Law Institute and a local delegate to the CPPCC, tried to pressure Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung into clarifying his stance on the issue. Hoo believes the by-elections are fundamentally equivalent to a referendum. Since that contravenes the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law, he demands Wong speak out against them.

Hoo has confused the issue. On the one hand, he seems to give the perceived 'referendum' undue recognition by paying it too much attention. On the other hand, he has effectively accused the government of acting illegally and unconstitutionally. If such critics truly believed the by-elections were a referendum in disguise, they would have taken measures such as lodging a judicial review to block them. It's obvious that the entire argument centres around people's different perceptions. Fortunately, Wong did not cave in to the pressure; otherwise, this would have deteriorated into another political farce.

The pro-Beijing and pro-establishment parties have inadvertently recognised the by-elections as a referendum on democracy by vehemently fighting against it. They have achieved the opposite of what they intended by putting the issue in the spotlight. As a result, they have disadvantaged themselves. On another level, they are in effect encouraging electoral unfairness.

Under the 'one country, two systems' principle and the policy of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong', we will ultimately need to have universal suffrage. When legislators feel they must resign to make a point on important issues, so be it. This is part and parcel of legislative politics. Critics of the by-elections must accept this as a core value of our political culture; blocking the poll is equal to challenging 'one country, two systems' and the rule of law.

In fact, the pro-government parties should have seized the opportunity instead of boycotting the poll. If they believe the public oppose the by-elections and disapprove of the pan-democrats, they should take part and try to win more seats. Only about 30 per cent of voters support the referendum tactic, a recent survey found. If the pro-government side snapped up all five seats, it would cut the pan-democrats to 18 votes in the legislature - gaining enough clout to pass the election reform just tabled by the government. Wouldn't that be a more effective way to crush the 'referendum'?

Many of the by-election candidates are largely unknown. Because of that, most media organisations seem reluctant to give them prominent coverage, which I think is wrong because it is their public duty.

We can no longer deny the reality of the by-elections. Actions speak louder than words: let the voters cast their ballots.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator