Pan-dem problem is disunity, not poll rules

Shorter polling hours, regulated surveys and relaxed advertising will mean nothing if the opposition squabbles among itself and refuses to coordinate candidates

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 November, 2017, 1:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 November, 2017, 1:45am

The government has proposed shortening polling hours, regulating election surveys and relaxing election advertising rules on third-party usage of online media.

Critics are up in arms. Conspiracy theories abound.

The public consultation on the proposed electoral rule changes certainly suffers from bad timing. It comes on the heels of the bitter battle over changing the rules and procedures in the legislature to undercut the opposition’s ability to exploit filibustering.

Shorter polling hours has received the most attention, and we will focus on it in this short column. There are several arguments that deserve closer examination. First, there is an assumption among many critics that voters’ behaviour will remain the same even if the rules are changed. So, if you tend to go to the polls late, just before the closing time at 10.30pm, you might not vote at all if polling stations are closed, say, two hours earlier from now on. That is not necessarily the case.

Social media posts supporting Hong Kong poll candidates can land you in jail for 3 years, but relaxation of rules in sight

The most common objection, or conspiracy idea, is that by shortening polling hours, it makes it more difficult to project exit polls and for a last-minute rushof voters to support vulnerable candidates in what is sometimes called strategic voting.

Reasonable on paper, strategic voting has never worked in an actual local election. In fact, a version of the method, championed by maverick legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting, was accused of giving wrong projections and undermining support for some well-placed candidates in favour of fringe rivals in the last Legislative Council election.

Every politician knows what wins an election is the strategic placing of candidates, not strategic voting, at least with the proportionate voting system in Hong Kong. This means fielding fewer but stronger candidates to avoid spreading the votes too thinly.

Hong Kong political heavyweights back down from district council by-election

It’s true the pan-democratic opposition almost always wins more votes than the pro-establishment people in geographic polls. But they often squander that advantage.

By strategic candidate-placing in the last election, the loyalist camp secured 16 seats with just 40 per cent of the popular vote while the opposition received 55 per cent of the total votes but won 19 seats – only three more.

The loyalists’ victory rate was 59 per cent of 27 candidates in five geographical constituencies, compared with 43 per cent of 44 opposition candidates.

The proposed rule changes, even if enacted, will not make much difference so long as the opposition parties squabble among themselves and refuse to coordinate candidates.