Can trade-based seats continue to function?

Our four-part series on potential reforms for the 2016 Legco election concludes by looking at how functional constituencies could evolve

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 4:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 4:33am

Lawmakers who represent trades and business sectors are faced with a difficult question ahead of the 2016 election: can they make their existence more palatable to the public at large?

While some of the 30 lawmakers admit that their seats need to have broader electorates and put votes in the hands of individuals rather than corporations to "increase the level of democracy", others support the status quo.

But political pundits doubt whether maintaining functional constituencies in any form will be compatible with universal suffrage, which Beijing has promised to deliver for Legislative Council elections from 2020.

Arrangements for 2016 are subject to a government consultation, which is also considering how universal suffrage can be implemented for the 2017 chief executive poll.

And some functional-seat lawmakers are considering allowing more people in the relevant sectors to vote or removing votes from corporations as a way to fend off criticism.

One of those facing up to the problem is Chan Kin-por, who represents the 130 companies that hold votes in the insurance sector. Chan suggests each of the companies could instead put forward 10 directors as voters.

But tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing believes such a change would be the wrong approach for his seat. Some 80 per cent of the 1,000 votes in the tourism sector are in the hands of corporations, and Yiu said that changing to a director-based approach would leave too much power in the hands of big travel agencies, not small and medium-sized companies that make up the bulk of the industry.

Agriculture and fisheries sector lawmaker Steven Ho Chun-yin has a different dilemma. He is supposed to represent both sectors equally, yet the city's thousands of fishermen vastly outnumber its remaining farmers, who number in the hundreds.

Handing the votes currently held by organisations like the Sha Tin Florists Association and the Aberdeen Fisherwomen Association to individuals could mean "upsetting the balanced participation" of the different sectors, Ho said. "Balanced participation" is a term Beijing has frequently used when discussing democracy in Hong Kong.

Industrial (second) seat lawmaker Lam Tai-fai has a different solution. He wants to merge the two industrial and two commercial seats with two other seats, import and export, and textiles and garments. That would result in a six-seat "commercial and industrial" constituency, with 9,000 voters. He said such a change would be more democratic and give business a strong voice.

For those sectors in which individuals, rather than corporations, are allowed to vote, broadening the voter base appears to be the preferred option.

Both Tony Tse Wai-chuen, of the architectural, surveying and planning sector, and the IT sector's Charles Mok favour expanding their voter base by a few thousand on top of the present electorates of fewer than 10,000. This would be achieved by allowing more professionals to be eligible.

But Mok, one of the few pan-democrats to win a functional seat, is insistent that constituencies like his must go by 2020.

"My proposal is not an attempt to rationalise the [existence of the] system," Mok said. "But as long as it remains this way, the franchise should be expanded for the sake of electoral fairness."

However, the pan-democratic Alliance for True Democracy said cutting the number of functional seats would be better than changing the electorate.

Political scientist Ma Ngok agreed, adding: "I'm worried that by expanding the electorate, there will be more voters with a vested interest. Will they ask for a seat in which they have a vote to be scrapped?"

For others, no change is the best option.

"It's best to stay on the same ground," said real estate sector representative Abraham Razack, citing the difficulty of changing some seats and not others.

One sting in the tail is that electoral reform requires a two-thirds majority in the 70-strong legislature - giving functional constituency lawmakers the theoretical chance to block any plan they do not like.