You would be forgiven for forgetting that the quadrennial Legislative Council (Legco) Election is this Sunday. For the entire city is talking about only one thing: the escalating national education controversy that has thrown our government into the biggest political firestorm since C.Y. Leung took office in July. It also doesn’t help matters that Election 2012 is a particularly confusing one. This time around, every voter is given two votes, one for a geographical constituency and the other for a District Council functional constituency called the “Super Seat.” Super what? And to confuse you even more, there are more new faces from political parties old and new in the run than in any prior elections. Figuring out who is who and which candidate to vote for can be a tall order. This article is designed to help.
Before you hike up your pants and wade through the murky waters of local politics, it helps to get a crash course on how the Legco works. This will help you get past the rhetoric and debunk the half-truths. So bear with me for a few minutes and tough out the next three paragraphs the same way you swallow cough medicine or listen to your boss’ golfing exploits. Once you understand it, everything else will start to make sense.
Local Politics 101
The Legco, our mini-parliament, currently has 60 seats, half of which are called “geographical constituencies” (地方議席) and half of which are called “functional constituencies” (功能議席). The 2010 Political Reform Package increased the number of seats to 70 – adding 5 seats to each half – beginning this Election 2012. Whereas the 35 geographical seats are directly elected by millions of voters like you and me, the 35 functional seats are each handpicked by a small circle of voters within a trade or interest group. The Engineering functional seat, for instance, is selected by only a few thousand registered engineers, whereas the electoral base for the Insurance seat is made up of not a single individual but 140 insurance companies. By and large, the functional constituencies are dominated by pro-business, pro-government and pro-Beijing elites who invariably vote the party line.
The functional constituencies are the government’s most effective weapon against uncooperative lawmakers. They serve a dual purpose: to shoot down any bills introduced by the democratically-elected geographical constituencies and to rubber stamp those proposed by the government. This is how it works. Under the infamous “separate vote count” (分組點票) procedure, any bill introduced by a Legco member must go through two rounds of voting: it must first be passed by the geographical constituencies and then separately by the functional constituencies. As a result, bills that the government or Beijing doesn’t care for will inevitably get voted down by the ever loyal and ever predictable functional constituencies.
But the Legco voting system is seriously schizophrenic. Under our one-of-a-kind, only-in-Hong-Kong electoral system, the separate vote count mechanic applies only to bills proposed by individual lawmakers. Government-proposed bills, on the other hand, require merely a majority vote by all 60 (soon to be 70) seats voting together. Because Pan-Democrats carry only about 23 seats in the Legco, with the remaining seats taken up by pro-establishment lackeys (including most of the functional seats), the system ensures that every government-led initiative -- which otherwise would have been killed by democratically elected lawmakers in a separate vote count -- sails through the Legco without a hitch. As a result, our legislative and executive branches always march in lock steps. How is that for a separation of powers?
Be Angry, Be Very Angry
If you have paid attention to what you just read, right now you should be fuming with anger. You should be asking yourself: how can a system so inherently undemocratic and blatantly unfair fly below our radar screen? Good question. In fact, the functional constituencies are the reason why taxpayers are forking out HK$67 billion for 26 kilometers of wasteful express railway, why the investigation of C.Y. Leung’s conflicts of interest in the West Kowloon bid was dropped, and why the government is sitting on trillions of foreign reserves and we still don’t have a social security plan. Funding for the national education curriculum, the cause célèbre that is blanketing the airwaves and plastering the newsstands this week, was approved by the Legco in 2004. 15 years after the Handover, the functional – make that dysfunctional – constituencies remain the single biggest stumbling block on the city’s path to full democracy.
Hong Kong has the dubious distinction of being one of very few places in the world where citizens are deprived of universal suffrage but still enjoy unfettered freedom of expression. It is as much an irony as it is a perfect recipe for social activism. While we don’t have the right to elect our chief executive or half of our lawmakers, we can shout out against unwanted government policies. Over time, our voices have become our proxy votes. It is Martin Luther King Jr. who said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In Hong Kong, slogans, banners and mass protests are our language. Sunday protests are so common that they have become a way of life.
Now back to this Sunday’s election.
Who NOT to Vote for
Let’s rule out the obvious: DAB (民建聯), the Liberal Party (自由黨), the Federation of Trade Union (工聯會) and Regina Ip’s New People’s Party (新民黨) are all pro-Beijing, pro-establishment parties that you can cross off the list. Likewise, many of the so-called independent candidates are either secretly backed by one of those parties like Priscilla Leung (梁美芬), or numbskulls like Pamela Peck (白韻琹), a washed-up radio talk show host milking her D-list celebrity status. Together they make up a rogues gallery of social pariahs who prey on the elderly and the uninformed, who spit in your face and tell you it’s rain. If you are reading this, then chances are you are too smart to fall for their traps.
Then there are the Democrats (民主黨), the largest opposition party. Founded by Martin Lee in 1997, the Democrats used to a beacon of democracy and guardians of our core values. Though they might not always be as effective as we would like them to be, we thought of them as the good guys. But the summer of 2010 changed all that. During the heated political reform debate, the Democrats sold out the city by handing the government a political gift wrapped up in a bright pink bow: the seven votes it needed to pass the regressive Reform Package (which, unlike other bills, required a super-majority). We all suspected that they did it in exchange for favors from the Liaison Office (中聯辦), including a nomination threshold for the new “Super Seats” that is favorable to large political parties like the Democrats. Because of the underhanded trade, universal suffrage and the abolition of the functional constituencies – cornerstones of the Pan-Democrats’ platform – got indefinitely postponed. The scars of betrayal run deep and the Democrats are now more despised than even the despicable DAB. So much for a beacon of democracy.
What about other Pan-Democrats like the Civic Party (公民黨), the Labour Party (工黨) and ADPL (民協)? They didn’t sell us out to the Communists and those lawyers and union leaders surely look persuasive and gentlemanly. But their gentlemanliness is precisely their problem. Reasoned debate and thoughtful dialogue may work in normal democracies like the U.S. and Europe. But we don’t have a normal democracy in Hong Kong. So long as the functional constituencies still occupy the left wing of the Legco, none of the Pan-Democrats’ high school debate team tactics will gain any traction. Still, these one-trick ponies stick to what they do best: they wag their fingers at the government and issue strongly-worded public statements. It is the equivalent of hiring a guard dog that barks but never bites. Their lack of conviction, driven by their aversion to risk and desire to protect their professional image, has made them utterly powerless against the establishment. On that account, they are just as guilty as the pro-establishment camp of acquiescing to the status quo and contributing to the business-as-usual Legco culture.
Don’t Mistake the Good Guys for the Bad
Enter People Power (人民力量) and the League of Social Democrats (社民連). Loud, crude and easily mistaken for common thugs, they are the polar opposites of the goody two-shoes Civic Party. Most people know them only for their over-the-top antics: hurling objects at political opponents and clashing with police outside the Liaison Office. God forbid, they even curse in front of television cameras from time to time. In a city that gives so much importance to civility and social harmony, these foul-mouthed rebels are branded as radical and irrational. They threaten our parliamentary culture and set bad examples for our children.
But that’s just a load of bollocks (expletive replaced).
With unwavering resolve and grit, People Power’s Raymond Wong (黃毓民) and the Social League’s Long Hair (長毛) use their no-nonsense straight talk and take-no-prisoner antics to rattle the establishment and shake up the status quo. They galvanize the public and breathe new life into social activism, our only leverage against a lopsided system. They are also positive role models for our youths, contrary to popular misconception. Without the likes of Wong and Long Hair to emulate, the students who organized themselves as Scholarism (學民思潮) wouldn’t have had the courage and conviction to besiege the government headquarters this week in protest of the national education curriculum. If the protestors were behaving anything like the gentle souls of the Civic Party, they would have paid the Education Department a visit, delivered a 50-page complaint letter and gone back to their studies.
What’s more, People Power and the Social League are not all brawn and no brains. Politically savvy and creative, they are the best antidote we have against the dysfunctional system. For instance, Raymond Wong came up with the brilliant idea of a de facto referendum to garner public support against the 2010 Reform Package. Though voters’ turn-out was disappointing, it was enough to upset Donald Tsang’s apple cart and force his cronies to scramble for a counter move. During the last Legco session, Wong and his faithful sidekick Albert Chan (陳偉業) played tag team in a series of filibusters that ultimately thwarted C.Y. Leung’s attempt to rush through his cabinet reshuffle without public consultation. While the two were busily stalling the Legco vote, the rest of the Pan-Democrats sat on the sidelines jeering at their efforts, green with envy.
Whom to Vote for on Sunday
No matter how much I advocate for them, People Power and the Social League remain a hard pill for many Hong Kongers to swallow. Like durian and stinky tofu, they are an acquired taste. In Hong Kong, civility and docility are social values that have been firmly imprinted on us, not least by an education system based on rote learning and rule following. We tune out when we hear a curse word and squirm when things turn physical. We are trained to only listen to reason, even if we often lack the ability to tell the truth from lies. Between now and Sunday, politicians of all stripes will tell you the big plans they have for Hong Kong and the 25 reasons why you should vote for them. But in the end there is only one platform that any party can and should run on, and that is universal suffrage and the abolition of the functional constituencies. And the candidates that can get you the closest to the end game are People Power and the Social League. If you are still not convinced, think about the students camping out on Tamar Square, some of whom are on a hunger strike while others are calling for class boycotts. Now imagine it was our politicians on that square. Who among them do you think would most likely get the government to back down? Those who play by the rules or those who think outside the box? Choose wisely.
What About that Second Vote?
“Super Seats” refer to the five new functional seats added to the Legco as a result of the 2010 Reform Package. The candidates are nominated by District Councilors and elected by all registered voters. They are so called because of their large electoral base comprising over 3.2 million voters. But the high nomination threshold negotiated between the Liaison Office and the Democratic Party has effectively barred People Power, the Social League and other small parties from the race. I therefore suggest you cast a blank vote, for it will send a clear enough message to the Super Seat candidates that none of them is worthy of your vote.
The opinions expressed here are the author's own.