Another day, another election – and Hong Kong is still waiting for political reform
Alice Wu says with a new Legislative Council being elected, Hong Kong must turn to the work of making our electoral systems fit for universal suffrage, even if it means doing so step by step
With the Legislative Council election over, we can let out a sigh of relief, albeit a brief one. When measuring the size of excrement becomes a highlight of our election debates, we know we’re close to hitting rock bottom. For better or worse, Hong Kong has now voted for its new – and sixth – Legislative Council. These 70 people will determine whether we suffer more political stink pervading our next four years, or if we can look forward to better days.
With party elders across the political divide bowing out, we have a significant number of freshman lawmakers. This will add to the unpredictability of the already strained executive-legislative relationship. Whoever the new lawmakers return as their council president will be new at his or her job as well, adding yet another source of volatility to the executive-legislative chemistry.
The longer Hong Kong is left in political limbo, the faster we will head to self-destruction. The earliest attempt at political reform will not be possible until next year, meaning that the earliest we will be able to vote for the city’s leader is 2022. And if we do manage to do the incredible, the earliest we can elect all members of Legco by universal suffrage is 2024.
We would be deluding ourselves if we think electoral reform at the legislative level will be any less challenging than that for choosing the chief executive. Its complexity goes beyond how we can make functional constituencies “democratic” – already a tall order in itself.
British parliamentary leader Richard Graham recently commented on our legislative electoral framework, providing us a good opportunity to move away from the political trash talk that has bombarded us all summer, to consider a worthier topic. Graham believes our electoral system is “a barrier to the executive and preventing Hong Kong from becoming a more dynamic city”, and sees adopting the British first-past-the-post voting system as our way out.
No voting system is perfect, and switching to a winner-takes-all system will do little good. It would actually leave more voters disappointed.
The proportional representation system used for the 35 seats in the geographical constituencies and the five “super seats” minimises vote wastage. It ensures a diversity of opinions in the legislature. Instead of potentially leaving 49 per cent of voters disappointed – that being the biggest disadvantage of the first-past-the-post system – the proportional representation system yields a far greater number of happy voters.
Graham sees the first-past-the-post system as “infinitely less complicated than proportional representation”, but to simply equate simplicity with being better is too, well, simplistic. Winning by majority with a small margin creates its own crises of representation.
While proportional representation does contribute to “fragmentation” – which became the catchword for this election – we must tread carefully before we consider trading it for a majoritarian voting system. Lowering voter alienation, protecting minority representation and ensuring multi-party participation in the political process are crucial in Hong Kong, where party politics is weak and party membership remains unpopular.
One way of reducing fragmentation is by fixing our other problem: geographical constituencies that are too big. Nine seats allotted for one single constituency lowers the winning quota and threshold significantly. That is the reason why, in 2012, before the term “fragmentation” came into vogue, a candidate in New Territories East won with only 6 per cent of the votes (28,621 votes) while a list in Hong Kong Island, having won 21 per cent of the votes (70,475 votes), also won one seat, out of the seven alloted there.
The lower the threshold, the easier it is for opportunists to win under the “largest remainder” method, and the more fragmentation it encourages. Breaking up the bigger constituencies will help. It will lessen the disparities in population and number of electors among the constituencies and create a more level playing field for candidates.
By far, the greatest political landmine, and the cause of our greatest angst, is the traditional functional constituencies (not counting the five “super seats”). This year, 12 out of the 30 traditional functional constituency seats have been returned uncontested. Granted, it’s an “improvement” from the 16 uncontested seats of 2012, but it’s painfully hard to stomach a 40 per cent uncontested rate when we had 22 lists competing in just one geographical constituency.
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Again excluding the “super seats” (where lawmakers are elected by a system of proportional representation), the functional constituencies use two separate systems – the preferential elimination system (four seats) and the first-past-the-post system (26 seats). If proportional representation is criticised for inducing fragmentation and making cooperation between parties more complicated and difficult, then these other voting systems obviously create too little competition, and too much “collaboration” within an already small group of electors.
Getting our functional constituencies and its three separate voting systems ready for universal suffrage will require a level of political will and wisdom that we have yet to see in Hong Kong. But unless the next chief executive introduces reforms in both the election of the chief executive and that of Legco, social conflict and governance problems will continue to plague us. This city’s vitality depends on our ability to work through our politics.
Many have placed the blame for the emergence of radicalism and extremism on the proportional representation system used for 40 of the 70 Legco seats. But let’s not forget that it is hard for radicalism to make inroads into formal politics without conditions that give voters a reason to resort to desperate measures. In Hong Kong, it is the growing trust gap between the people and the central government, the legitimacy crisis afflicting the office of the chief executive, and the lack of competition in the functional constituencies that are creating the breeding ground for radicalism and fatalism.
No electoral system is perfect, and electoral reform is a never-ending process. Mature democracies continue to look for ways to better their systems.
Perhaps we can learn from the University of Hong Kong pollsters who have come under fire over their rolling opinion surveys for this election. In response to its critics, the university’s Public Opinion Programme said it “believed any method … would not be absolutely fair”, and that what it did was “already the best we could do” under current circumstances.
There are many ways we can improve our electoral system. Unless we come to terms with the constraints, and then demand those who hold the key to electoral reform to kick-start the process – so that we may implement the best reform measures we can muster under these various constraints – we will all lose.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA