Disregard the by-elections farce, get on with reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am

Sunday brings the much-touted 'de facto referendum', which has now been reduced pretty much to a non-event. The outcome of the by-elections in all five electoral districts is known even before the first ballots are counted, since there is virtually no opposition.

When Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen appeared on Thursday in Legco, he was repeatedly asked if he intended to vote. He refused to answer the question, saying he had not yet decided. The answer seems clear: he will not vote. In fact, the vast majority of registered voters will not cast ballots. What is the point, when there is not the slightest doubt of the outcome?

This has nothing to do with exercising the right to vote. It has everything to do with legislators jerking voters around, creating an artificial election and then telling voters that they have not only the right but the duty to vote.

Politicians do not have the right to insist that electors vote over and over again if they resign and run again for those same seats. How does anyone know that they won't resign again after Sunday's polls and force more by-elections?

The government's political reform plan can be criticised for not going far enough, but some people are making the fallacious argument that it is actually a step backwards. One of the 'referendum' issues is getting rid of the trade-based seats. But does anyone think Sunday's by-elections will have that result?

Getting rid of functional seats requires a two-thirds majority of all lawmakers. After Sunday's vote, 30 of the 60 seats will still be functional constituencies, and those legislators will be able to veto any proposal to eliminate them. What is needed is a strategic plan to gradually dilute the voting strength of these traditional functional seats.

The political reform package, if passed, will reduce the proportion of traditional functional seats to 30 out of 70 seats. Like the proposal in 2005, the package this year dilutes the old functional constituencies by limiting them to their current numbers while creating new seats that are democratically, albeit indirectly, elected as functional seats. This reform will also turn district councils into incubators for future politicians, grooming them to move from district work into fully fledged legislators. Current legislators who served as district councillors, such as Lee Wing-tat, show that the councils can be good political incubators.

I don't know how Tsang persuaded the central government to accept such a change, but he obviously did. That was a great feat since, at one stroke, it changed the nature of functional constituencies and diluted the voting strength of the traditional ones. If the 2005 package had not been vetoed, we would have a Legco today in which the old functional seats were limited to 30 out of 70. And, most likely, the 2012 package would have further marginalised them to 30 out of 80 seats. Since democrats hold some trade-based seats, like those for lawyers and teachers, there may no longer be enough votes to veto a motion to get rid of functional constituencies.

Finally, it seems, some members of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage have awakened to this and are calling on the government to make it an 80-seat legislature in 2012. That is difficult to do now, but it would be different it the 2005 package had not been vetoed. Now, we may have to wait until 2016 to see this realised.

The creation of a modern functional constituency consisting only of elected district councillors is a bold and visionary move. It is nonsensical to characterise it as 'retrogression' or as 'entrenching functional constituencies'.

Opposition to this reform will, in effect, perpetuate the traditional functional constituencies. Such a reform is much more important than the by-elections on Sunday.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.