Hong Kong by-elections have become a case study in the pitfalls of too much democracy
- Alice Wu says the infighting in both the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps results in a parade of the same old faces and issues come election day
- Repeated by-elections are leading to voter fatigue that will ultimately set back the city’s political development
Given all the pain Hong Kong has gone through in the name of fighting for our constitutionally promised right to vote for all members of the Legislative Council and the chief executive, it would be safe to say that the accepted presumption is that elections are good.
But at times like this, we need to ask whether elections are indeed, categorically, good. Are there instances where we are better off without them?
What do I mean by “at times like this”? Well, just take a look at what elections have been doing around the world. Elections have made the very powerful pander to the hateful and ignorant just because they are their base. Elections have made it “necessary” for those who wish to stay in power to be provocative, picking fights at home and abroad to galvanise an increasingly polarised and radicalised electorate.
Elections have been calls to violence for many. In just this month, elections have driven people to mail pipe bombs in the US, commit hate crimes and murder in Brazil, and carry out suicide missions to eliminate candidates in Afghanistan. The price of elections seems far greater than the benefits in these cases.
In Hong Kong, we’re lucky that we have only had to witness the occasional minor scuffle and tune out bad-quality election debates. But as we’re having, yet again, a Legco by-election for the Kowloon West constituency, we must wonder whether – even if we accept the presumption that elections are a good thing – having elections can be too much of a good thing?
Watch: March 2018 by-election winners sworn in to Legislative Council
Elections and election campaigns do play an important role in sustaining democracy, even if ours is rather limited. Every election is a chance for society to have important dialogues – on the issues of the day or on local concerns that need attention – in which the candidates, the people and the media all take part.
It’s an opportunity for communities to be deeply engaged, it’s civics in action, nurturing people’s sense of belonging and community. The process can enrich our knowledge, make us better-informed citizens and people who are sensitised to the concerns of others.
What is disheartening, though, is that these by-elections have simply become displays of our political parties’ inadequacies. For the pan-democrats, infighting remains the camp’s most debilitating “disease”.
By-elections for geographic constituencies employ the “first past the post” voting system, which has traditionally benefited the pan-democratic camp. But because of the infighting and the inability to collaborate and compromise – and as if it’s not enough that they managed the “impossible” in March by losing while fielding just one candidate, Edward Yiu Chung-yim in the March by-election – two “heavyweights”, Lee Cheuk-yan and Frederick Fung Kin-kee, are running this time.
The inability to deal with discord and negotiate a solution ultimately discredits these politicians. The camp keeps splintering because there is no ladder or grooming of younger members. It’s a vicious cycle that the camp lacks the political will to overcome.
The pro-establishment camp is no better. By fielding – well, backing – a novice in former television anchor Chan Hoi-yan, it is obvious that, while they put up a united front, the “harmony” is fragile. In 2016, they managed to win only two of the six seats in Kowloon West. Having won one more seat in an earlier by-election, if they were to win a fourth seat now, it would leave the camp with four seats to defend at the next Legco election in two years’ time, while being certain of earning enough votes only for two seats. Which party, or candidate, would want to give up their seat when the time came?
To avoid the intense argument that would be sure to follow, the camp has no choice but to take a chance on a political newcomer. Thus, despite the many “ready” candidates they have groomed for years, they went with someone who basically parachuted into West Kowloon politics.
Our by-elections do not offer fresh thinking for old problems. They feature the same old problems, faces and attacks. Thus, we cannot be blamed for suffering from by-election fatigue. Unless the city’s politicians shape up, voter fatigue is imminent. That would be detrimental to our political development.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA