A number of interesting questions arise when looking ahead to the legislative council elections in December. The answers to those questions will determine the stance of the different parties as they plan their participation.
We need to start with a quick recap of what our legislature will look like after the recent reforms. The total number of seats will be increased from 70 to 90. The election committee, newly expanded from 1200 to 1500, will elect 40 of its own members to LegCo. The number of functional constituency seats will be reduced from 35 to 30 by elimination of the five super seats. The number of directly elected seats to be filled by universal suffrage will be reduced from 35 to 20; instead of five large constituencies each returning many members under the proportional representation system, there will be 10 constituencies each returning two members on the basis of simple numerical count.
The election committee will comprise 982 elected members, 156 nominated ones and a further 362 persons ex-officio. Nominations for the first group closed earlier this month and the elections will take place in mid-September. Thus we will not know for a few more weeks most of the people who will actually be on the election committee but given the structure and eligibility it is safe to say the body will be an overwhelmingly conservative one. The 40 LegCo members who emerge from it are likely to be of similar disposition.
Elimination of the five most representative functional constituencies, plus other changes to the composition of various groups, is likely to reinforce the traditional conservative bias in this category of seats. It would not be surprising if the conservative camp won more than 20 of them.
Thus without the general public being involved at all by way of universal suffrage, traditional conservatives could already have sewn up a two thirds majority of the next legislature. The slow but steady journey towards greater democracy we seemed to be on has been thrown into reverse.
As regards the 20 geographical seats, the vote split traditionally has been roughly 60:40 in favour of the pan democrats. Under the new system, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its allies could pretty much guarantee winning 10 seats (one in each constituency) provided they agree to field one candidate only and throw all their collective weight behind that person. Their 40 per cent share would be enough to deny any two other candidates enough votes to stop him. But the sitting members of these parties are many more than 10, so some will have to sacrifice themselves unless of course they have secured membership via some other route. It might not be possible for the DAB, FTU and New People’s Party to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Even if they do, some of those who don’t make the final list could decide to run as independents. The Liberal Party might also field a candidate somewhere thus further complicating the situation. The conservatives could quietly nominate a second candidate in each constituency in case the democrats rumoured boycott became reality.
Moreover the questions on the democratic side are equally important and in some scenarios could impact the conservative side’s calculations. The League of Social Democrats, for example, has already announced that it will not field any candidates. The Civic Party’s candidates, if any, would run the risk of disqualification during the new vetting process: their leaders did after all urge sanctions by the United States Congress against Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The Labour Party may also struggle to get its nominations accepted bearing in mind one of its leaders is in jail pending national security charges. The Democratic Party itself is understood to be seriously split on the issue with most members favouring not standing. Even if that becomes the party’s official position at a general meeting scheduled for September, the possibility of some Young Turks quitting the party and running anyway is a real prospect.
Outside the mainstream democrats there is also the possibility of some “soft yellow” parties emerging to field candidates, for example Frederick Fung Kin-kee’s Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood.
Another possibility is use of surrogates. If the Democratic Party in particular does not want to sully its own hands, to appease its own hard-core members, it could find independents to run in each constituency. The party’s behind the scenes support could be made known so that the 60 per cent would know what to do.
The argument advanced by some for not participating is that it would lend legitimacy to what is a blatantly unfair and undemocratic system. Proponents of this view argue that the reforms this year take the community further away from the ideal of greater democracy, not closer to it as they have always advocated. The argument in favour of participation is an existential one: if your party is not in business to contest elections, then what on earth is its purpose?
From my perspective, I understand why the Central People’s Government lost patience with the shenanigans in LegCo that rendered the body incapable of functioning, but I think the pendulum on political reform has swung too far. It restores order in the short term, but it kills hope for the future which is not good for stability in the longer term.
Which brings us to the other great unknown factor: the attitude of Hong Kong voters. One way or another, they will silently make their own views known. The turnout percentage will be eagerly watched. If the number is high, it could indicate people are happy with the return of tranquility. If on the other hand they stay away from the polls in large numbers that would be saying something else. The question then becomes whether anyone is listening.