Hong Kong’s political parties must rise above the status of pressure groups

Gary Wong says the city’s governance has been left in the hands of civil servants for far too long, and it’s time for moderate democrats to step up their game to influence policymaking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 11:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 11:48am

In order to break through the long-standing impasse between Hong Kong’s executive and legislative arms, nearly two decades since the handover, simply asking for democratisation is not going to cut it – we must take the initiative to develop party politics in the city. Whether in the form of a majority party or a coalition formed by multiple parties, a well-established system can manage power relations, lessen conflicts and, where necessary, encourage cooperation between the executive and legislature. Not only will this prevent the occurrence of a “solitary” chief executive, the government as a whole will also become more accountable to the people, promoting good governance and peaceful, rational politics in the long run.

We need to start laying the foundations for party politics

Why do our political parties, old or new, rarely position themselves as a heavyweight in governance? Of the few that once sought to lead, most, if not all, are now reduced to being pressure groups. While the Basic Law forbids the chief executive from being politically affiliated, and the central government does not encourage two-party competition, these are not reasons for parties to avoid leading the debate on policymaking. If all parties lack political ambition and ability, governance in Hong Kong is doomed. Politicians will continue to be all talk, and policymaking will be left to technocrats who struggle to form an overarching vision. Public confidence will slump because there will be no one with sound political aspirations to vote for and count on.

If Hong Kong is to find its way towards better governance, we need to start laying the foundations for party politics. In a democratic chief executive election, candidates without party backing will struggle to find solid support.

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Last month, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, resigned from the Executive Council. Though she denied any intention of running in the upcoming chief executive election, she also did not rule out the possibility. In tandem, her fellow party member and legislator Ip Kwok-him indicated that the DAB is eyeing a role as the city’s “governing party”.

As it works towards this goal, other political groups should not be content with their pressure-group status or remain content with their political antics and myopic interests. With the rise of localists on the fringe, and weak but growing calls for Hong Kong independence, our political landscape is changing. Moderate democrats – especially the new generation of politicians – have to carefully consider their position: should those in the centre lean towards the extremes? Or should they try to fortify and expand the middle ground that they hope to occupy?

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In fact, if the pro-establishment camp remains in its current position within the political spectrum while localists march towards the extremes, the middle ground in between will certainly open up. Can moderate democrats groom their middle-ground forces? Veteran democrats will soon retire and the younger ones are about to take over. Will they join hands with the localists or the radicals and play the role of the opposition? Or can they cast aside past differences, unite in the middle, and vie for democratic governance against the DAB?

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Across the globe, the co-existence of moderates and radicals in politics is nothing new. There is no imperative for moderates to be allied with radicals, nor is there any need for one to antagonise the other. Radicals represent voices in society which cannot be neglected, whereas moderates have a positive role to play. Moderates looking to lead will need to garner widespread support, instead of allowing radicals with limited vision and ability to dictate our discourse.

The essence of true autonomy in Hong Kong is to give Hongkongers a say on what they want and the means to fulfil it. What the political scene really lacks nowadays are not moderates or radicals per se, but a culture of respect, clear political ideals, blueprints that can be practically pursued and democratic governance that prioritises people’s needs. These arduous tasks, not perpetual opposition, are what moderate democrats should seek to undertake.

Gary Wong is a governor at the Path of Democracy think tank and a Chevening Scholar