My Take

Alternate universe: where opinion polls are labelled as referendums

Hong Kong’s political activists and localists groups are deluding themselves by calling on the people to decide on what happens after 2047 (or sooner)

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 10:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 8:36pm

Radical democrats and populists romanticise referendums as the ultimate exercise in the people’s will. We have plenty of those in Hong Kong. From Benny Tai Yiu-ting of Occupy Central to our current crop of newly formed localist groups, our political activists delight in conducting mock referendums as a tool to fight Beijing and the Hong Kong government.

Demosisto, a new political party formed by former members of the defunct Scholarism group, wants to carry out a referendum in 10 years on whether Hong Kong should remain part of China after 2047. An alliance of localist/independence groups wants to hold such a referendum sooner rather than later.

Of course, their very conception is absurd. A referendum is no referendum if it has no power to enact the outcome being voted on. It is no more than a public opinion poll. So instead of being grandiose, why not be honest and call it what it is – a poll or survey, and nothing more?

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Hong Kong’s constitutional settings do not allow for referendums. That stems from the inherently limited democratic nature of our political system. But instead of calling it a weakness, it is actually a strength. A referendum is one of the worst features of Western-style democracy.

The issues to be decided by referendums are by definition highly complex matters. Why, then, should such difficult issues be decided on a single day by one vote through the asking of one simple ballot question?

Such ballot questions typically oversimplify; they are often not even the questions that many voters have in mind but who are being forced to vote anyway. Such exercises in direct democracy are the antithesis of representational or parliamentary democracy.

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Britain is a good example. Less than two years ago, Scots were asked to vote on whether they wanted to remain part of the British union. The world looked on aghast and uncomprehending as to why a fruitful union of more than three centuries could be dissolved by a single vote. That it didn’t had a lot to do with luck. Now, Brits will vote this summer on Brexit, on whether to exit the European Union, an issue far more complex than Scottish independence. Referendums are a collective leap into the dark. They are nothing to celebrate, let alone emulate.