How Hong Kong’s electoral system only discourages political moderates

Gary Cheung says the proportional representation system has nurtured radical voices, leading to a fragmented legislature. However, with both sides seemingly in their comfort zones, there’s little hope of change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 3:39pm

The findings of the survey commissioned by the Path of Democracy, in which 41.9 per cent of the 1,010 respondents interviewed between October 12 and 17 identified themselves as moderates, came as a “surprise” to the group’s convenor, Ronny Tong Ka-wah.

The poll, conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme, found that 28.4 per cent supported the pan-democrats and 11.4 per cent said they backed the pro-establishment camp.

Tong, who resigned as a lawmaker and quit the Civic Party in June to advocate a moderate path to democracy, said the findings showed that the level of support for the pan-democratic and pro-establishment camps may no longer follow conventional wisdom. Over the past two decades, it has been the case that pan-democrats won nearly 60 per cent of the popular vote and the government-friendly camp took about 40 per cent in Legislative Council elections.

Noting that the poll found more than 53 per cent of interviewees felt it was necessary to communicate with Beijing, Tong believes there may now be a larger proportion of moderates in Hong Kong.

Having a small but fervent support base is enough to win a seat even if you go against the majority view

But Tong and his group didn’t perhaps need to fork out thousands of dollars on a survey to discover that a substantial majority of Hongkongers see themselves as moderates; it’s actually not that surprising.

According to a poll commissioned by the Post last September, some 56 per cent of 1,004 respondents considered their political stance as “the middle ground or have no preference”. Some 33 per cent identified themselves as “democrats” while another 7.4 per cent said they were “pro-Beijing”. The poll was also conducted by HKU’s public opinion programme.

Another Post-commissioned survey, conducted by Chinese University’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies in January, found that 49.5 per cent of the 907 respondents said they were in the “middle ground”. It sounds natural that most Hongkongers consider themselves moderates; it is a socially desirable answer when they are approached by pollsters.

The controversial remarks by Chan Kin-por, chairman of the Legco Finance Committee, that it takes fewer than 30,000 votes to win a seat in a geographical constituency, raises the point that the proportional representation (PR) system does not encourage moderates who take into account mainstream public opinion.

Chan, who was returned unopposed in 2012 as the insurance sector legislator, said the existing electoral system was abnormal. He concluded that radical lawmakers who mounted filibusters were unlikely to be punished by voters under the present system.

Under the system, adopted since 1998, parties or non-affiliated groups rank candidates on lists. Their chance of winning a seat is based on a “quota” – obtained by dividing the number of valid votes cast in the constituency by the number of available seats.

If a party gets enough votes to meet the quota, it automatically wins a seat. Whoever gets the remaining seats is determined by ranking the so-called remainder votes. Under the current system, having a small but fervent support base is enough to win a seat even if you go against the majority view.

The system, which nurtures minority and even radical voices, explains why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s repeated appeals to voters to punish at the ballot box radical lawmakers who filibuster government bills has proved to be wishful thinking.

Besides, it has spurred a fragmented legislature, which makes it more difficult for government officials to canvass lawmakers’ support. In 2013, Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong called for a review of the PR system. He argued that even if the most capable person was chosen as chief executive in 2017, he or she could hardly solve the deadlock in governance if the system remained intact.

But with both the pro-establishment and pan-democratic camps in a comfort zone under the system, few across the political spectrum will seek to change the status quo in the foreseeable future.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor