Spoiled ballot

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

An event of great folly will play itself out on Sunday. Some of us will choose to participate in it, most others will probably sit it out, but we are all required to finance this folly with our tax dollars. It's not so much the HK$150 million cost of the Legislative Council by-elections that makes them foolish. It's that the instigators of the by-elections didn't think the matter through.

When you play high-stakes politics you need to know your end-game. You must set clear goals with a high chance of success. What you don't want to do is rush headlong into a gamble with odds that would hurt rather than help your cause. But that is exactly what a radicalised faction of Hong Kong's democratic movement has done. It instigated by-elections with the resignation of five legislators and gave them a fancy name - a referendum on democracy. Heady with misguided confidence, it planted its goal posts on high moral ground. It said re-election of the five legislators would mean the people had spoken - they want early democracy. The shock value of this aggressive tactic electrified our politics.

But then it all began to crumble. Political parties loyal to Beijing refused to play. Only fringe candidates with little chance of being elected stepped forward to challenge the five who resigned. Opinion polls showed most voters saw the by-elections as a waste of time and money. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen hinted that he wouldn't vote by publicly questioning the ethical legitimacy of the forced elections. The democratic movement split into those who supported the gamble and those who didn't. The hapless initiators of the so-called democracy referendum began lowering the bar for success.

We are now at a point where no one - not even those who forced the by-elections - knows exactly what they are supposed to achieve. Is the goal to prove people want speedy democracy, or an end to functional constituencies? But we already know those things. Yet we also know most people have grudgingly accepted that Beijing controls the speed and scope of Hong Kong democracy. Is the referendum then supposed to force Beijing's hand? How often has that succeeded? You could argue it succeeded once, in 2003, when Beijing ordered the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa to take early retirement. But that took half a million angry people marching in the streets. Will Sunday's by-elections attract that many voters? Polls suggest not.

Rather than bring clarity to the issue of democracy, the by-elections have further muddied the waters. No one has any clue what's going to happen next. Our political development is heading towards nowhere on two separate tracks. The radical democrats are sticking to their doomed cause, deluding themselves that if the five who resigned defeat their lightweight opponents on Sunday, they'll have the upper hand even if turnout is dismal. Moderate democrats are on their own course of confrontation mixed with compromise, agreeing to talk to the government but threatening to vote down the political reform package as it now stands.

We know Beijing will ignore Sunday's results even if voters send a strong signal for speedy democracy. Mainland officials have scoffed at the claim that the by-elections double as a democracy referendum. We also know neither Beijing nor the moderate democrats will compromise to the extent the other side wants.

So how do we untangle this mess that we have created for ourselves? To untangle it, you must first understand it. More is at play than simple mistrust on all sides. We're dealing with politics, pig-headedness and face. The three don't mix well. As our masters, face matters for mainland leaders. As rulers in a one-party communist state, they are unaccustomed to blinking first. As Hong Kong politicians elected on a pledge to advance, the democrats draw their strength from sticking to their cause. Being pig-headed is a form of survival. They, too, cannot blink first. Compromise is missing in the vocabulary of all sides.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster