Political parties find it difficult to mature

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

It is perhaps unsurprising that in a city where the political structure's space for genuine public participation does not match the people's education levels, affluence and political awareness, new political parties are born with relative ease. Public grievances keep rising, and political parties are born to represent and reflect those sentiments. Setting up a political party, which is usually done through the Companies Ordinance, is literally as easy as setting up a company. And with the prospect of a more democratic legislature in which the people can have a greater say over the composition, there has been talk about the possibility of more new parties, such as the current discussion between various pan-democrats about a Labour Party.

However, while it is easy to set up parties to represent people's sentiments, past history in Hong Kong has shown it is far more difficult to develop a party into an institution that can actually serve its members and supporters by implementing policies for their benefit. The League of Social Democrats came into existence with much fanfare in 2006. But barely three years later, two of its key members had left with a substantial faction of supporters to form a splinter group. And while the league found many young supporters and represented the frustrations of many socially disadvantaged groups during those three years, one has to wonder how effective it was in helping implement policies it thinks would benefit its supporters. The likelihood of that happening has now decreased even further.

Meanwhile, an analysis of party finances, conducted by corporate governance activist David Webb suggests that unless you have the backing of wealthy establishment figures, 'party financing remains at its infancy'. Financial support still comes mostly from donations and for pan-democratic parties these donations fall sharply during non-election years. 'On these modest budgets, the parties cannot possibly hope to run meaningful internal think tanks or research units to support their decisions on policies,' leading to knee-jerk reactions to short-term issues rather than principle-based proposals and well-researched criticism of government policies, concludes Webb.

Part of the blame must be laid on the government's unwillingness to create a climate conducive to the growth of parties. Earlier this month, it opposed allowing legislative amendments to allow the chief executive to have political affiliations. It then failed to gain enough votes to support the temporary budget funding and complained that pan-democrats did not switch sides and make up the numbers as if it were a game of schoolyard soccer. No doubt, this would not have happened if the administration had formal alliances with parties in the legislature. The reality is that the current political climate makes it easy for new parties to gain support for saying the right things, but difficult to mature into real institutions that are ready to offer real solutions to governance. It is hoped that the Labour Party, arguably more a consolidation of forces rather than a splintering of old parties, will be able to mature into such a party, especially if it receives the support of the Confederation of Trade Unions which would give the party a solid backbone. But still, before concrete moves are made to set up the Labour Party, it is hoped that those involved in the discussion are giving priority to assessing whether another party would ultimately be better at serving people's interests and not just become another 'shell party' through which they can prolong their political careers in the legislature.