Government may shoot itself in the foot with by-election plan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am


Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung last week suggested scrapping by-elections in geographical constituencies. Instead, he proposed, a vacant seat in the Legislative Council arising from the resignation or death of a lawmaker should be filled by the next best-placed candidate at the previous election.

The proposal is intended to plug a loophole so that legislators cannot use by-elections to stage 'referendums'. Last year, five Civic Party and League of Social Democrats legislators resigned to trigger by-elections that they called a referendum on political reform.

The new rule would also apply to the five new district council functional constituencies.

The proposal was put forward without public consultation. Obviously the government is determined to push it through Legco with the support of the pro-establishment camp. It is hoped that the rule could stop legislators from using public opinion to pressure the government on important issues.

The administration is concerned that the tactic could become even more attractive to any dissenting legislators when the new district council functional constituency elections - with their larger electoral bases - come round.

Elected members using resignations to seek support from constituents on important issues is not unusual; it happens in all democratic systems and is certainly not a waste of public money.

If the same logic applies, wasn't the by-election triggered by the resignation of Ronald Chan Ngok-pang, who left his Southern District Council seat last year for a government job, also a waste of public money? The government appears to think not, and that seems like double standards and hypocrisy at work.

It is apparent that the proposal was a political decision. When the referendum challenge was first announced by the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party last year, the pro-establishment camp initially thought it offered them a good chance to win some of the vacant seats and gain more power in Legco.

Later, they had to abandon their plan and were forced to boycott the polls because the central government was afraid that participating in the by-elections would set a bad precedent.

Lam seems to believe the new rule could minimise the political options for the pan-democrats. On the contrary, it has opened the floodgates, exposing the government to more problems. Lam failed to consider other possible scenarios and balance the pros and cons before coming up with the plan.

In fact, his plan could make the administration more vulnerable.

Let us use the 2008 Legco election results as an example. Those who got the most votes in the five constituencies were Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (Hong Kong Island), Wong Yuk-man (Kowloon West), Fred Li Wah-ming (Kowloon East), Tam Yiu-chung (New Territories West) and Ronny Tong Ka-wah (New Territories East). If all these people resigned and we applied the new rule, the candidates to replace them would be Lo Wing-lok, Claudia Mo Man-ching, Andrew To Kwan-hang, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung and James Tien Pei-chun.

Other than Tien, the rest belong to the pan-democratic camp. By following Lam's game plan, the balance of power would shift, to the advantage of the pan-democrats.

Furthermore, the proposal would strip voters of their right to choose candidates.

It might also lead to corrupt practices, such as giving up a seat for financial or other benefits. The proposal could inadvertently encourage political violence, too. Another extreme scenario is political assassination - not just the physical act of killing a Legco member to replace him or her, but also by attacking someone's reputation to force that person to resign.

Clearly, it is not in the government's best interest to support Lam's proposal, which would be political suicide more than anything else.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.