Political parties that defy the laws of physics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 September, 2010, 12:00am

The peculiarity of Hong Kong politics is relatively well known but insufficiently discussed. When it is, the discussion tends to focus on the impotence of political parties that can run for office but are constitutionally barred from governing. However, there is less discussion of the vagaries of public support for parties, which seems to demonstrate that water can indeed flow both uphill and down, here.

In the fallout from the great constitutional reform debate, public support for various political parties changed significantly. The latest opinion poll shows that the Democratic Party, seen as having played a key role in influencing the reform package, registered a significant boost in support. Yet the Civic Party registered an even bigger proportionate gain - reflected in the victory of a Civic Party candidate in the recent District Council election - even though it staunchly opposed the reforms, which were backed by a majority of the population. Maybe some voters like parties that stand on principle while others value pragmatism at all times.

So far so puzzling. But what of the League of Social Democrats, who, if anything, were even more vigorous in their opposition? Its support has declined sharply. And, while the Democrats were being rewarded for their flexibility and pragmatism, no such accolade was given to the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which also made a compromise - supporting a reform package that had to be scrapped. Maybe this was because the public felt the DAB was only following orders from Beijing as opposed to making its own decision, something the party adamantly denies.

Other parties merely confirmed their peripheral status in the wake of these developments. This, too, is rather odd because, elsewhere in times of political turmoil, it is often the fringe parties that make a bigger impact than their larger counterparts simply because they have less to lose and more to gain from punching above their weight.

Because the government has no electoral base of its own, the leadership in Lower Albert Road has belatedly realised that it needs to form alliances with political parties, primarily the DAB. This is a double-edged sword for the party because, although it ensures rewards and jobs for its members, it also means being dragged down by the government's unpopularity without having the right to sit at the table where policies are determined.

The other parts of the government alliance are more problematic. On the one hand is the shamelessly opportunistic Liberal Party, which started life with considerable financial backing from tycoons but has since split and understandably failed to make an impression on the electorate. On the other hand are the vociferously self-seeking traditional rural interests, exemplified by the Heung Yee Kuk.

Meanwhile, in the opposition camp, the league is moving further to the left, where it retains core supporters but finds it hard to co-operate with other democrats and harder still to expand its constituency. The Democratic Party, effectively the founder of the democratic camp, retains a sense of entitlement to the leadership of the camp. Yet only occasionally does it use its leadership position to forge an effective, united front. The Civic Party is torn between its middle-class origins and an attempt to become a mass party, another problematic manoeuvre. In short, the opposition is not united.

So we are left with a government lacking any kind of popular mandate and political parties struggling to remain relevant and effective. This produces a general sense of alienation from politics despite growing political participation in ways that bypass the established political process. These contradictions are strange and cannot last forever.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur