Why Hong Kong’s Legco is Bad for Democracy

Whatever you may think of Benny Tai and his political activities, his ThunderGo tactical voting programme has had a profound impact on Hong Kong elections, even if the result was not quite as he had intended.

Whether or not his intentions were to reduce the representation in Legco of the pan-democrats, ousting in the process a few long-established figures, or to facilitate the election of young localists, the results have ensured that localists and their views are now mainstream.

Much comment, expert and otherwise, on the election results has focused on the possible reaction in Beijing and on the part of the Hong Kong Government. There has also been speculation about possible cooperation between the pan-democrats and the localists. Questions about the continuation of pan-democratic policies, such as filibustering have also been raised. But while the sheer number of parties now represented in Legco has been noted, there is almost no comment on the implications of this phenomenon. These are significant.

Customarily in democratic, developed economies just a few political parties are dominant. In the US these are the Republican and Democratic parties and in the UK the Labour and Conservative parties, although they are both challenged by the Scottish Nationalists, while the Labour Party is presently engaged in a divisive leadership battle.

There are, of course, exceptions. Italy has nine parties represented in its upper chamber, the Senate (315 seats), and nine also in the Chamber of Deputies (630 members). In recent history, the Chamber of Deputies has featured members, and parties, whom President Obama might diplomatically describe as ‘colourful’. Among them from 1987-1992 was Ilona Stoller, a former porn star known as La Ciccionila, who initially represented the Radical Party and later the Love Party. Whether or not these facts represent a model for good governance is best left to individual judgment.

Hong Kong, however, is yet more extreme. In the Legco elections held on 4 September, 39 political parties, plus some non-affiliated and independent candidates, fought each other for 40 Geographical and Super Seats. I am grateful to the SCMP for this information, published on 6 September. Ignoring non-affiliated and independent winners, 15 parties eventually won seats.

Of further interest was a list the SCMP published on the same day of what they described as the ‘major parties’ contending for Legco seats. There were only 13 parties on this list, one more than the representation of the largest Legco party, the DAB, who now have just 12 seats in a chamber of 70.

Five ‘major parties’ on the list had just one seat each. One party, the Neo-Democrats, had none at all, having lost the sole seat they had won in 2012. Their inclusion on the list is difficult by any available criterion to justify.

Based on the SCMP figures the political party:Legco seat ratio is 1.79:1.

There are many reasons why these outcomes are undesirable. The most obvious is that few parties have the resources to undertake proper policy research and studies, evidenced by the content of most election materials, and a large proportion of members elected will find it impossible effectively to monitor the wide range of government legislation that is debated and voted on in the chamber.

To consider further implications, let’s indulge in a fantasy: at the end of this year, the Government in Beijing decides in the light of the wishes of the Hong Kong people as expressed in the Legco elections to introduce universal suffrage (freedom to nominate and elect the Chief Executive, who will be free to form his or her Government). Yes, I know, I know but it is a fantasy.

From among these 39 parties, whom do you select and agree upon as candidates? Will there be 39, plus a few independents? How will they be able to produce coherent manifestos on the basis of which electors may make judgments? By what process will they be elected? And when someone finally emerges as the Chief Executive, how will she or he populate a government and after that, how will they build a basis of support in Legco? It would be totally unworkable.

Those members of Legco who, irrespective of party label, advocate universal suffrage and ‘true democracy’ must themselves be seen as model adherents of democratic principles. They should be acknowledged as skilled and professional politicians. They should be capable of organizing themselves in parties that people can recall – who can remember the names of 39 parties? – promoting policies that address public needs. Right now, Legco fails these basic tests.

From the point of view of public interest, the losses of the pan-democrats, the soul searching in the Liberal Party, and the gains of the localists were the best possible outcome of the 4 September elections. The sterile tactics of Legco opponents of the Government and their lack of coherent policies were decisively rejected. This should lead to major revisions of party structures and leadership.

However, history is not encouraging. Charismatic and effective political leadership has yet to emerge in Legco. This enormous task now falls to the young, newly elected localists. One hopes they are successful. Their first critical step should be to appreciate that there is no need for Demosistō, Youngspiration and Indigenous. They should instead merge and form a single party with an agreed programme. There is really no alternative.

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