The winding course of true democracy

Regina Ip says the experience of the West shows that every journey to universal suffrage not only takes time, but also arrives at an answer unique to its own circumstances

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 3:59am

As the government continues to stay silent on its proposals for constitutional reform and the timing of its consultation, democracy advocates - including representatives of foreign governments - have lost no time in turning up the heat on the authorities to implement "full democracy" or "genuine democratic suffrage" in Hong Kong.

Yet none has been able to provide a full and convincing account to the people of what they mean by "true democracy" or "genuine democratic suffrage".

If by "full democracy" the proponent has in mind a system whereby every citizen can have a direct say in the running of his or her city, the truth is that this form of direct democracy existed in the city of Athens about 2,500 years ago. At that time, Athens was a city state of about 300,000 people, with only roughly 25,000 citizens with voting rights, the rest being women and slaves.

Such a system ceased to be viable as the population grew, and democratic experiments in Greek city states became either supplanted by rule by "tyrants" or overrun by more powerful military empires.

"Liberal democracy", referring to a system of government underpinned by respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, and involving periodic, peaceful transfer of power to elected representatives of the people, has emerged as the preferred system of government in the West for only about 300 years, starting with the American revolution of 1776.

As Samuel Huntington pointed out, this much-glorified "first new nation", benefitting from the ideas about separation of powers and checks and balances of Locke and Montesquieu and refined by framers of the American constitution, achieved a finely calibrated division of powers combined with fusion of functions. Yet the relevance of the American experience to contemporary modernising nations is debatable; America, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution" and was "born equal, instead of becoming so".

Eighteenth-century America had a "pleasing uniformity" of the "one-state" of well-endowed settlers rebelling against their home country. The American revolution is different in kind from the social revolutions of Russia or China, which involved a struggle of the poor against the rich, the oppressed against the oppressors.

As for "genuine universal suffrage", if it is agreed that "universal suffrage" means a universal and equal right to vote, Hong Kong is almost there as far as elections to the legislature are concerned. Every voter has two votes: one in a functional and another in a geographical constituency.

A problem is the apparent asymmetrical representation of functional and geographical representatives on the Legislative Council. This is a problem recognised by legislators across the political spectrum and can be resolved in time if good sense and the will to compromise are allowed to prevail.

Benefitting from the experience of the West, Hong Kong has conferred universal suffrage on its citizens in the election of their legislature within a much shorter space of time than its Western forebears. Many of the world's "leading" democracies, the United States, for example, did not give its women an equal right to vote until 1920, nor large numbers of blacks in the south until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Britain did not extend this right to women aged 21 and above until 1928, after a bloody suffragette movement; France did so in 1944 and Switzerland 1971.

While universal suffrage means a universal and equal right to vote, few democracies, if any, give every citizen an equal right to stand for the highest elected office. In parliamentary democracies, the prime minister is nominated by his or her party and elected by members of parliament; in France, a presidential candidate has to be nominated by at least 500 elected representatives among more than 47,000 such office-bearers.

In the US, presidential candidates have to go through lengthy, increasingly expensive and complex primaries staged by their parties. Independents can be nominated by civic ballot but he or she must pass muster with every state, with few such independent candidate, if any, winning electoral college votes.

In sum, hurdles are high in all leading democracies, requiring staggering amounts of money, to the extent that many have lamented that only those bankrolled by the super-rich or hailing from powerful parties or political dynasties stand any chance of securing nomination.

If Hong Kong is able to pull off a political consensus and give its citizens a universal right to elect its chief executive in 2017, it would be a tremendous achievement, considering that the Basic Law has only been implemented since 1997.

There is no need to cry foul just because the Basic Law has a nominating requirement, like many democratic countries; or view 2017 as a deadline by which all work must be completed. The building of a functioning democracy that delivers good governance is a noble ideal and a work in progress. It requires sincerity, honesty and open-mindedness from all those who have real stakes in the well-being of this vibrant city.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party