An overreaction to a political stunt
Although Hong Kong is still moving towards universal suffrage, there is no doubt that elections have, over the years, taken root. Every four years, over a million voters go to the ballot box to return political veterans and new faces who they think will best serve them in the Legislative Council. The elections, especially the district-based ones, are highly competitive and are followed closely by the public. Occasionally, vacancies arise for various reasons and by-elections are held to fill the seats, according to the law. Since the handover, there have been eight rounds of general elections and by-elections. Voters have taken their responsibilities seriously.
The government's proposal to scrap by-elections in certain seats is, therefore, a backward step. It has been prompted by what officials see as a 'loophole' in the law which allowed five pan-democrats, one in each of the five geographical constituencies, to resign and stand in by-elections which they hoped would be a referendum on the pace of democratic reform. The campaign was a failure. Voter turnout was just 17 per cent, a record low, and the by-elections cost more than HK$120 million to stage. It was a needless distraction from the important business of striking a deal for progress on democratic reforms.
The government is particularly concerned because a political stunt like this will be easier after 2012. Under current rules, resignations by any of the six legislators in the district councils functional constituency - in which over two million people will be eligible to vote - would trigger a city-wide by-election.
But the proposal to scrap by-elections is a fundamental change to our system that warrants thorough debate. It restricts the ability of voters to express their preferences when a vacancy occurs, whether through illness, death or resignation for other reasons. Such a significant step requires careful consideration, especially as the consequences are unclear. There are concerns such an arrangement would mean a candidate who lost by a wide margin and retired from politics becoming a legislator a few years later. There should at least be a public consultation so that the proposal can be fully discussed.
The government argues that having the next best placed candidate at the previous election fill a vacancy would still reflect voters' preference. But it would not take account of a change of heart among voters since that poll. The point of elections is that voters can punish people or parties for not doing a good job and keep the ones they see as having done well. Scrapping a long-standing electoral arrangement is not a step to be taken lightly. It is a disproportionate reaction to the misconceived and ultimately unsuccessful 'referendum' plan. We need to be moving towards greater democracy, not limiting opportunities for people to vote.