Year of ugly politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 February, 2011, 12:00am

If we look at how, within months, this city saw the birth of three political organisations, we can be sure that the Year of the Rabbit will be a big year for Hong Kong politics. This is the year we will see whether the constitutional reform package passed last year will translate to actual progress in democratisation. District councillors have long been seen as being outside the glitz and glamour of high-power politics. But the reform has granted them more influence, bringing them under the spotlight. Only district councillors can contest the new 'super lawmaker' seats. With more at stake, even political heavyweights are said to be considering fielding themselves in the district council elections due later this year.

So, we expect to see these heavyweights rolling up their sleeves, working the ground and engaging in the unglamorous work of district councillors that traditionally receives little recognition and even smaller returns. Who wants to sit, week after week, in owners' association meetings that drag on into the wee hours of the night? Who wants to talk about bus routes and road construction? Who wants to deal with petty community spats? But this is exactly what 'serving the people' involves.

Grandiose rhetoric over ideology serves little purpose when it comes to the issues of daily life. Requiring a number of lawmakers to be in touch with their electorate at the district level will give our lawmaking body and political debates more relevance.

Theoretically, more competition will throw up better candidates and lead to better district councillors. And for the voters who once viewed district council elections as being too inconsequential to be worth their time and effort, seeing celebrity politicians contesting these seats may persuade them to vote.

There is little doubt that the new political groups have been formed partly - if not solely - to tap this group of voters, which could amount to 350,000, going by the difference in turnout between the 2007 district council polls and the 2008 Legislative Council election. An increase in electoral participation will be fundamental to our progress in democratisation, and voters are ultimately the ones to gain.

The biggest political challenge, by far, is how the city's political groups - old and new - vie for their share of the vote. The political infighting on display has damaged the parties' image and future development of party politics. A recent opinion poll showed that two-thirds of the people surveyed could not choose a party to support. The problem obviously is not the lack of choice; instead, voters are not convinced the groups can conduct their business properly, as has been shown by the infighting and, in particular, the factionalism in the League of Social Democrats.

Already stymied by a constitutional framework that requires a chief executive with no party affiliation, our political development has taken a turn for the worse with some politicians seemly unable to get beyond their own egos and put aside personal differences.

Dragging the public through the drama of personal grievances masquerading as political show ultimately disengages the public from politics, when what we really need are organised political institutions. Neither entertaining rhetoric nor colourful personalities empower the people. Political strength lies in the collective. It appears that some of our politicians have yet to learn from the destructiveness of narcissistic and toxic leadership.

Unfortunately, with higher political stakes in the upcoming district council elections, the infighting will only get fiercer. With the election committee, the chief executive and the Legislative Council elections that are to quickly follow, the Year of the Rabbit will be a highly charged political year with the ugliest of politics on display throughout.

Democracy relies not only on a system that enables it. The future of our democratic progress hangs dangerously in the balance. Whether our politicians will lead us down the path of a sophomoric brand of democracy or a liberal and mature one remains to be seen.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA