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The Political Reform Hong Kong Needs Is not “Real Elections”

Feb 27, 2015

As recent events have demonstrated, Hong Kongers are willing to go quite far to demand the “real elections” that has been their rallying cry ever since the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress handed down its decision a few weeks ago on the framework of the 2017 Chief Executive (CE) election. The feeling among protesters is that the vetting process of this framework means that the candidates who will stand for election will be handpicked by Beijing, therefore unrepresentative of the wishes of Hong Kongers. Instead, the protesters are demanding “real elections” that uses an open primary for nominations, therefore eliminating Beijing’s role in the electoral process. While a laudatory goal, it is doubtful that “real elections” as demanded by the protesters will actually solve the longstanding political tensions that have been simmering in the city since the handover in 1997. In fact, direct and open elections of the CE may actually exacerbate the problem by introducing political gridlock in a system already fraught with mistrust and unproductive bickering.

There are broadly three structural problems with the political arrangement in Hong Kong that makes it inherently unstable. Without solving these deep seated issues, an open nomination process for the CE is unlikely to be useful in quelling the anger and frustration among a large segment of the Hong Kong public.

1)      Lack of room for compromise in the Legislative Council (Legco)

Partisanship in the Legco has been a constant problem since the handover. The pro-Beijing camp is almost guaranteed control of the house because of the many functional constituencies that they control, as well as their more efficient allocation of votes in the popular vote despite always polling lower than the pan-democrats. Therefore the pro-Beijing parties see little need to compromise with the opposition because they never really fear losing control. The pan-democrats, on the other hand, fear being branded as “traitors” and thus are unwilling to support government initiatives on major issues. The Democratic Party attempted compromise in the last round of political reform debate, but have been severely punished ever since at the ballot box. After the Umbrella Movement this situation is likely to become more severe, as protest votes for more radical democrats push out the more centrist parties. This lack of compromise makes it such that one side, which are broadly the supporters of the pan-democrats, always feeling they are left out of the political process and can only resort to protest to voice their anger.

2)      Murky relationship between executive and legislative branch

The officials in the Executive Council (Exco) are appointed in the style of a parliamentary cabinet, but in reality they are still mostly career civil servants with little or no ties to political parties. We therefore find the rather awkward arrangement where a largely apolitical Exco must submit bills for a very partisan Legislative Council to pass. In reality, the Exco can only work closely with the pro-Beijing parties of the Legco in order to court their votes, and there have been cases where one or two parties can hold a legislative item hostage when they do not agree with it.

3)      Unaccountable officials

Another longstanding issue with the Exco is the way the officials with portfolios are appointed and handled. Theoretically they are responsible for their performance and can be dismissed at will, unlike their civil servant predecessors, but in practice the government’s response to scandals have been uneven. Several prominent members of the current Exco have been embroiled in scandals or serious mishandling of legislation, with no repercussions for them. This has led the general public to question whether or not these officials are responsive at all to their needs. Voters know very little about them and have never cast a vote for them, but yet they wield tremendous influence over government policy. This is toxic for the legitimacy of the Exco and reinforces the idea that the Exco is out of touch and unresponsive.

The “real elections” demanded by protesters for the CE would not solve these problems. If such a system exists it is quite likely that a pan-democrat CE will be chosen. He or she will have tremendous difficulty in ensuring passage of legislation through the Legco given its dominance by pro-Beijing parties. Political gridlock is almost guaranteed, making administration even less stable than it is now and will almost certainly invite crises of governance.

There are solutions that fall under the rubric of the Basic Law and the recent ruling from the Standing Committee. A fundamental problem that needs to be resolved is the need to link up the Exco and Legco in a way that creates more effective and responsive government in practice as well as in the perception of the voting public. Since the Basic Law does not specify how power should be distributed within the Exco, it is possible for the CE to delegate power to the Chief Secretary (CS). Under this rubric, the CS will function much like a prime minister in many countries with elected legislatures, linking the executive and legislative branches of the government for the duration of their mandate under the auspices of the CE. The CS position should be handed to whoever can muster a majority coalition in the Legco. This would create not only the possibility, but also the incentive, for parties and factions to cross aisles and work together on issues that are generally of importance to the Hong Kong public, namely matters of socioeconomic impact. The Exco would therefore function like a cabinet in most democracies, with the CE as a nominal head but leaving all internal administrative matters in the hands of the CS.

For this to truly work, however, the electoral system of the Legco itself must be reformed. It must be possible for more than one configuration of coalition to form in order for this system to function. Otherwise we would return to the ossified divide between pro-Beijing and pan-democrats that we have today. Functional constituencies must go, possibly in phases, because they are a gross distortion of the electoral process and their continual existence damages the legitimacy of all legislators. It is one of the most frequent demands of those calling for change for a reason.

What about the CE’s position in this proposal? If power for all internal affairs is delegated to the CS, then the CE’s remaining jobs are a) to ensure that legislation passed are not unreasonable, and veto any such legislation if necessary and b) to handle all affairs outside of Hong Kong, including relationships with Beijing and any and all foreign matters. How the CE is chosen has little effect on internal politics, because those matters are determined by who forms a coalition in the Legco. Hong Kongers should be willing to compromise on this point if in exchange they get to popularly elect legislators who become fully responsible for domestic policy in the city. The ability to boot out unpopular leaders responsible for domestic policies will be a vast improvement over the current arrangement where officials are unaccountable for their actions and voters feel their choices at the ballot box mean little in reality.

Is this a proposal Beijing can accept? The short answer is nobody really knows. However, the central government’s desires for Hong Kong are not too dissimilar to those of most Hong Kong people. It wants an efficient government that can resolve internal problems. It wants a Hong Kong that is prosperous and stable. It wants to maintain the loyalty of the vast majority of Hong Kong citizens, and one way to secure this is to have an efficient and effective government. Its interests will still be easily safeguarded by the CE’s veto power, and of course the entire state apparatus as well as its hold on the ultimate authority in legislative matters. There is little doubt of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. It will also probably dampen the restive and belligerent mood in Hong Kong towards mainland China if the city’s government can address the people’s desires more effectively.

Finally, would parties in the pro-Beijing camp, which are currently masters of Legco, be willing to go along with this plan? A chance to lead a government here in Hong Kong with their active involvement in policymaking should be enticing for them. Perhaps it is time for them to also take the responsibility of governing, rather than being able to dodge criticism whenever an administration’s policies prove unpopular. That, after all, is what real political reform is for – to create a government structure that can truly resolve the socioeconomic tensions of the city, and to build a better, more prosperous Hong Kong.

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