Wasted votes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am


It has been argued that the history of Western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to two ancient Athenian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato rejected the idea of democracy because he believed most people were driven by impulses such as appetite, greed and lust. In his view, very few individuals have the reason, wisdom and love of knowledge needed to make decisions for the good of the community.

Aristotle rejected this aspect of his mentor's teachings and argued instead that people are, by nature, political animals. He said that it is through reason and an engagement in politics that humans gain fulfilment. Aristotle's vision for government is one that allows as many people as possible to exercise political judgment.

The democracy of ancient Athens, however, excluded most of the population: women, foreigners, children, slaves, as well as freed slaves were not regarded as citizens and were therefore ineligible to vote. Similarly in Hong Kong, the next chief executive will be elected by 0.01 per cent of the population.

Proponents of democracy frequently expand on Aristotle's arguments, citing political decision-making as a fundamental human right and the higher chance of democracy getting things right. Nobel laureate for economics Amartya Sen argues that 'no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press'. In other words, democracy keeps politicians on their toes.

Democracy's detractors, on the other hand, often make distinctly Platonic arguments. New York University professor Russell Hardin has queried not whether the entire population will ever have the knowledge to meaningfully engage in the political process, but if this is a worthwhile goal at all. Hardin asserts that there are 'far more valuable things, including morally praiseworthy things, most people can do' than master political knowledge.

Though many people have taken part in protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, it is worth examining how support for the democratic process has manifested itself at the polls.

Voter turnout for Hong Kong elections has varied. Participation in Legislative Council elections was 53 per cent in 1998, 43 per cent in 2000, 55 per cent in 2004 and 45 per cent in 2008. Similarly, voter turnout for district council elections was 36 per cent in 1999, 44 per cent in 2003, 38 per cent in 2007 and 41 per cent last year.

The significance of voter turnout is contested. Low figures have been interpreted as reflecting general contentment with the status quo. Sometimes people have no idea who to vote for and, as Plato might have said, they probably never will. But the turnout has also been seen as a sign of disillusionment with the election process and the regime.

One thing is certain: it is hard to argue persuasively for democracy when most eligible voters have proved indifferent to the process. Whether people voted for 'pro-establishment' or 'pro-democracy' parties is beside the point because, if the past decade's record for turnout can be seen as a referendum on democracy, the people of Hong Kong seem to have, unfortunately, already made up their mind.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics