Affiliation to political party can help city’s leader govern more effectively
Under current rules, where the chief executive must be non-partisan, the entire legislature acts as the opposition, hampering good governance
Hong Kong has a most unusual political system. While hundreds of elected offices at the lower tiers have been open to political parties for decades, the job of the chief executive can only be filled by a non-partisan figure. The result is that he or she has been denied the party support that is readily available in other governance structures. So when a pro-government party calls for reviewing the long-standing ban on party affiliation for the city’s leader, there is every reason for Beijing and the Hong Kong government to listen. Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king was right in saying that a chief executive with a party background would have the benefit of rich political experience, as well as knowledge of the operation of the Legislative Council. More importantly, a partisan chief can enjoy more solid and stable support from the legislature, which is crucial to strong and effective governance.
The problems were also recognised by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. When asked about the performance of Leung Chun-ying at a press conference in 2014, Tung said the lack of support in Legco had made the job difficult. It was more a problem with the system, not with the individual, he said. The view is also shared by Tung’s successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who said all lawmakers were basically the opposition, except those who also sat in the Executive Council, the chief executive’s de facto cabinet.
The remarks by Tung and Lee are food for thought as we explore ways to enhance the political system. Incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has faced difficulties in recruiting talented people from outside the government. Without any firm party backing, she will have to follow her predecessors’ practice of lobbying for support from allies and foes on a case-by-case basis.
In introducing the party ban in 2001, the government argued that it could enable the leader to perform his or her roles without split loyalties, and that all parties could also operate on a level playing field. But it also acknowledged that the arrangement could be reviewed in light of the actual situation. Now seems a good time for that review. The past two decades have seen the city’s leaders hamstrung by the restriction on party affiliation. Despite efforts to appoint like-minded party leaders to the cabinet to consolidate the support base in Legco, such quasi-coalition does not always work, especially when parties are under pressure to keep the government at arm’s length in times of elections. The political negotiations and trade-offs with parties in return for support is not just affecting governance; it harms the healthy development of party politics.