End this electoral farce

As we are treated to endless speculation about how many seats the pro-democracy camp will win in September's Legislative Council election, a bigger point seems to be getting overlooked. It is that Hong Kong's election system is being shown up for the farce that it is.

Never mind the functional constituencies, which are worthy of a Dave Barry column in the way they mindlessly skew the weightings of employment-related sectors and allow a privileged business elite to act as a de facto upper house. The geographic constituencies are a travesty, too. Here is how it works. Voters must consider a number of 'lists' on their ballots. Any number of candidates can appear on a list, but they must be ranked, because success depends on the proportion of the overall vote that their list secures.

Let us say there are three seats in a constituency. If List A wins 100 per cent of the vote, then all three candidates will go to Legco. If it wins 66 per cent, its first- and second-ranked candidates will go, along with the top-ranked candidate from the next-best challenger, List B. Now spare a thought for List C, which may have pulled in up to 16 per cent of the vote. Its top-ranked candidate might have beaten the second candidate on List A. But we will never know, because there is no distinction between votes cast for individuals.

It is tempting to say tough luck, the losing candidate should have allied with others on a strong list. But it is not so easy when, in the absence of long-established, well-funded parties, there is no institutionalised way of deciding a list's ranking. If a so-called political alliance has three heavyweights eyeing the same district, how do they rank themselves? Nobody wants to be third, so they form their own list. Now, try to imagine the permutations in a seven-seat constituency...

Given the playing field, it is amazing that the pro-democracy camp has been able to raise expectations of winning a majority at all. Their horse-trading efforts to build the best lists while keeping everybody happy may appear derisory, but anyone who laughs at them ought to read William Golding's Lord of the Flies. It is not in the nature of politicians to go last.

Proportional representation, which underpins most of Europe's political systems, deserves the bum rap it gets from most Americans, as it weighs against the rise of maverick politicians - something that nascent democracies usually need. This system, however, works against the development of strong parties as well.

So, here is a suggestion, short of calling for universal suffrage by 2007 and 2008: do away with the lists and carve up the bigger constituencies. Have candidates stand as individuals in smaller neighbourhoods and let them be judged on their merits.

This will ensure three changes. One, the winning candidates will indeed be the constituency's first, second and third most-popular choices. Two, there will be fewer names on the ballot. And three, the parties can spend time focusing on campaigning rather than cutting deals over who gets to stand where.

It is not ideal. But if the Hong Kong and Beijing leadership want to avoid the pitfalls of Taiwan's messy legislative elections, the best they could do by 2008 is set up a firmer election structure, one that ensures candidates are able to project distinct platforms. If nothing is done, and there continues to be too many candidates running in multiple-seat, single-vote districts, it could go the way of Taiwan, where special-interest, well-funded ('black gold') candidates, can be elected on tiny percentages of the vote.

Fortunately, money politics has not reared its ugly head in the Legco election. Whether - and how - it could is the topic of another column.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's Special Projects Editor