Hong Kong's LegCo Elections: Overcoming the System

Christine Loh on Hong Kong's democratic future and hurdles along the way

By Christine Loh

The 1.784 million voters that participated in Hong Kong's 2004 Legislative Council Election gave a clear signal that they want democracy sooner rather than later. Whereas until now Hong Kongers have only been able to select the opposition, the recent elections indicated the people's desire to elect their city government. However, herein lies the uniqueness of Hong Kong's political system. Despite the city's many achievements in education standards, economic vibrancy, and social stability, its seven million people have yet to be allowed to freely choose their municipal political leaders.

The hurdle is Beijing: the Chinese leadership sees the pace of democracy for this small corner of China as potentially having a national effect. Thus, it does not wish to see things in Hong Kong move ahead too quickly at a time when it may be too early for the rest of the country to embark on similar reforms. Beijing sought to dampen the people's enthusiasm for democracy by having the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (SCNPC) rule in April that Hong Kong is not yet ready for universal suffrage in 2007-08, despite previous acknowledgments by the SCNPC to the contrary. Nevertheless, Hong Kong has been given a mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, which states that the "ultimate aim" of the city's political development is "universal suffrage."

Despite the April ruling, majority of Hong Kong voters still supported pro-democracy candidates whose message was to push for democracy within the next four years. In the directly elected Geographical Constituencies, the democracy camp won 18 of the 30 seats, taking in total about 57% of all valid votes cast. The pro-government candidates, who, by and large, supported Hong Kong's accession to universal suffrage in 2011-12, with one candidate opting for 2020, took the other 12 seats.

The democracy camp would have done better with at least 19 seats had they not made one fatal tactical error. To maximize winning seats under Hong Kong's complex proportional non-transferable list voting system, it is not just about winning as many votes as possible, but also about how to place candidates on lists in order to optimize votes for different lists to get more rather than fewer candidates elected.

An eleventh-hour tactical error on Hong Kong Island cost the Democratic Party a solidly-held seat. Two pro-democracy tickets ran in this constituency. The rival tickets agreed on a strategy to ask voters to split their support for the candidates based on the number of votes in a family. Election surveys in the weeks prior to election day indicated that the strategy was working well, as respondents showed a gradual propensity to split votes between the two tickets. However, on the last three days of the campaign, the Democratic Party got nervous and decided on a more aggressive strategy, asking voters to support only their ticket in the hopes of having their second choice for the position elected as well. In the end, the second candidate on the other pro-democracy list lost by 800 votes, with the seat going to the pro-government coalition. This is a very painful loss for the democracy camp since the seat was not in any danger. The result was that in a constituency where the democrats had always dominated, they now have to share three seats each with the pro-government camp.

In another constituency, Kowloon East, where there is a total of five seats, the pro-government camp won two because of the success of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). DAB spit its candidates into two tickets and overcame the difficulty of getting the electorate to give them enough votes for both to succeed. One of its candidates had received the highest number of votes in the 2000 election, while the other candidate was much less popular. The pro-government camp had to get voters to transfer their votes from the more to the less popular candidate to ensure that both got elected. DAB's success was based on the superior organizing ability of the traditional pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong. Though the Alex Ho "scandal" somewhat weakened support for the Democratic Party's list in that constituency, it was the ability to split votes that really won the day for the DAB. (Ho is held in custody on the mainland for an alleged prostitution misdemeanor.)

In the New Territories East constituency, the pro-democracy camp won five seats with its rival taking two seats one of which was a stroke of luck for DAB. The surprisingly high votes for an unaligned democrat had the effect of absorbing votes from other pro-democracy lists. The end result was that the DAB list was able to squeeze in a second candidate. In the New Territories West constituency, DAB's ability to successfully focus their candidates on one list to fight the pro-democracy camp's several lists helped in garnering that second seat. The other pro-government party, the Liberal Party, ran successfully on a separate ticket to take one seat.

In the Functional Constituencies (FC), which also returned 30 seats, the total number of registered voters for the 2004 election was 192,374, with a 70.14% turnout, or 134,935 voters. Among these FCs, ten are voted on by certain professional individuals, such teachers, nurses, accountants, lawyers, architects, surveyors, planners, doctors, district councilors, a handful of rural elders, engineers and social workers. The other 20 FCs are mainly made up of corporate voters, such as banks, insurance companies, stock broking firms, corporate members of chambers of commerce and industrial associations, as well as publishers, transport operators and travel agencies. Among the FCs, over 50% of the voters supported candidates who ran on pro-democracy platforms, although they only garnered a total of 6 seats. These were all won in constituencies with human votes rather than those dominated by corporate voters.

A key criticism of the Hong Kong electoral system is that it allows corporate votes to dominate in so many constituencies, which has the effect of devaluing the geographical votes. These corporate voters represent status quo interests that are against political as well as economic reforms. Typically made up of those who prefer not to open up the electoral system to universal suffrage in order to safeguard their political influence, corporate voters also want to prevent certain economic reforms, such as the introduction of comprehensive fair competition policies and legislation, which will affect the operation of cartels and oligopolies.

Beijing has traditionally seen the FCs as a conservative block that it can influence, describing them as important for promoting "balanced representation" and "stability" in society. Recent scholarly research on how the FC legislators have voted over past years provides valuable information on just what issues they support and what they can be counted upon to vote down. As Hong Kong now examines what reforms are possible despite the SCNPC's decision to rule out universal suffrage for 2007-08, the public is likely to focus more on FCs. They may well find FCs' habit of protecting sectoral interests over the public interest increasingly unacceptable. As frustration grows over voters' inability choose their leaders, the inequity of the FC system may well provide an energizing element to focus public demands for change. The danger for Beijing is that the inherent unfairness of the FC system, which favors conservative, vested interests, can become the very thing which causes instability and change.

While hampered in many ways, the newly-elected 2000-2008 LegCo nevertheless represents a step along Hong Kong's slow path to a democratic future. It is the first time in Hong Kong's history that so many people went to the ballot box to return the largest group of directly elected legislators. There are many lessons for all. The parties and candidates need to focus on how they will devise and promote policies to get ready to govern one day if they want voters to believe they can govern under a democratic system. Meanwhile, the Mainland needs to share power with those who have a mandate from the people rather than to keep them at bay. Beijing needs to recognize that Hong Kongers aspire to a democratic system providing a firm timetable for change in the foreseeable future would be the single most important stabilizing and unifying factor in society. Finally, the people of Hong Kong must continue to invest in and develop civil society so that they learn how to hold politicians and their government accountable.

Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange, an independent Hong Kong-based public policy think tank established in September 2000. More information can be found at [www.civic-exchange.org].

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This essay originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief and is reproduced here by permission of the Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the UCLA Asia Institute.