Hong Kong has no need of political parties that preach democracy but don't practise it

Alice Wu says it's time our political parties, which claim to champion democratic development, began to practise it themselves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 April, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 April, 2015, 9:00pm

With all the words that have been devoted to discussing political reform in Hong Kong, perhaps too few have focused on an essential component of democracy: political parties. Notwithstanding the fact our chief executive is required to have no political affiliation, the debate must involve an honest look at our political parties.

Just last week, one of the city's oldest and largest parties, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, not only elected its first female chairperson, but also finally completed the process of handing over the reins of power to the next generation. Leadership succession is an important milestone in a party's development. But it has mostly been something that many have found easier to talk about than do.

The other old and large party in Hong Kong - the Democratic Party - has been aiming, since its electoral setbacks in 2012, to put a younger person at its helm, but has had no success.

If we believe political parties to be essential to a democracy, then we must examine whether they do in fact contribute to creating the political conditions and healthy institutions needed for democratic development. Some see parties as incubators that nurture the people's political competence. So far, it is hard to say whether what we have in Hong Kong measures up.

We see, unfortunately, that the pan-democrats have developed a habit of being unable to work past their differences. The grouping has grown in size, but only by splitting into factions. There are many reasons for that, but it is certainly partly due to the Democratic Party's failure to change, accommodate and be responsive to internal as well as external demands. A healthy and strong opposition is essential to democracy. Political parties' ability to withstand external and internal pressures is a test of their leadership.

Differences and competing opinions are an important part of the democratic process. Political groups that can foster an inclusive democratic culture, and have put in place procedures and systems that accommodate deliberation and inclusive decision-making, serve the purpose of meaningful political progress. If only a handful of veteran leaders retain power, then supporters and the general public are robbed of new ideas and better choices.

One measure of success for political parties, irrespective of their ideological leanings, is their ability to organise differences, create common ground and help foster a better understanding of issues and solutions.

Stable and legitimate democratic institutions, of which political parties of every stripe are an indispensable part, are the pillars of any democracy. We must move beyond these parties' rhetoric of championing democracy and examine their health, demanding that they practise what they preach. Democracy is meaningless unless Hong Kong's political parties themselves encourage development and reform, can resolve conflicts in a sustainable manner, and revitalise the democratic process.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA