Thursday, 13 September 2012

Is Hong Kong becoming ungovernable?

Legco election results show more fragmented political landscape
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2012

HONG KONG - For two weeks in May, Hong Kong's legislature was held hostage.

Two members from the radical People's Power party speechified on more than 1,300 amendments, in a filibustering strategy to block a Bill barring lawmakers who resign mid-term from standing in a by-election within six months.

Legislators whiled away the time in the Chamber. One practised calligraphy. Another surfed the Internet. A third read detective novels and comics.

Meanwhile, time ran out for other Bills, including a policy to extend dental-care aid for needy elderly.

Is Hong Kong becoming increasingly ungovernable?

Some worry it could be so. And with the latest Legislative Council (Legco) election results showing a more fragmented political landscape, the situation looks set to worsen.

This city's seven million people are now represented by 70 legislators, who in turn hail from 17 political parties. This excludes the independents.

Previously, the 60 lawmakers come from 14 parties.

More significantly, they were part of the two broad coalitions that dominated the legislature - the pro-establishment and the pan-Democrats, led by the moderate Democratic Party (DP). The former held the majority of seats; the latter had veto power. Both acted as a check and balance on each other and the government, but also worked at the politics of compromise.

This could become more difficult in the months ahead. In Sunday's polls, the city's 3.8 million voters rejected moderate democrats in favour of those who advocate rowdier actions - from filibustering to organising protests to flinging bananas at government officials - to bring about change, specifically faster democratisation.

The radicals won five seats, up from three. Their vote share went up from 10 per cent to 16 per cent.

This, in a year that has seen Hong Kongers taking to the streets in large numbers, including in a 10-day protest that succeeded in forcing the government to back-pedal on the introduction of national education classes.

Why has this come about?

At the heart of it is the disenfranchisement with a system that many feel is unfair and incapable of addressing their needs. This comes in tandem with public distrust of Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying's two-month-old administration, perceived as pro-Beijing and plagued by scandals that undermine its credibility.

As Mr Bernard Chan, an adviser to Mr Leung, admits: "They are so angry with the government; it is a sign of no confidence."

Adds Ms Emily Lau, acting chairman of the DP, the largest casualty on Sunday: "The worse the government behaves, the more it makes people support radical methods."

The DP paid a heavy price for its relatively incremental approach to political change in Hong Kong, most notably seen in 2010 when it struck a compromise with Beijing over a raft of electoral reforms. DP chairman Albert Ho resigned to take responsibility after the party won only six seats, down from eight, on Sunday.

Meanwhile, even in the solid pro-establishment camp, there are hints of fractures.

The new landscape does not bode well for governance. "The politics in the coming years will be volatile," notes political analyst Peter Cheung of Hong Kong University.

This has serious implications for Mr Leung's ability to push his agenda, whether on housing issues or labour matters.

Beyond that, the design of the universal suffrage could be a fraught process.

While Beijing has promised "one man one vote" to Hong Kongers by 2017, worries abound that this will be a scrubbed version that screens out chief executive candidates it finds objectionable. The Basic Law stipulates a "broadly representative" nomination committee, but is short on details.

Moderate democrats may be willing to compromise within this framework. Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk Yan says the committee should be scrapped eventually. "But if we can't amend the Basic Law, we'll fight for the right of the people to nominate the candidates directly - for instance, he qualifies if he gets 50,000 to 100,000 nominations."

However, radical democrats are unlikely to settle for this, preferring a no-holds-barred arena.

This will affect whether the pan-Democrat camp can even hammer out a consensus on how it can use its leverage and veto power effectively when the time comes for the legislature to design and approve the system.

Ironically, this may serve Beijing well, says Mr Chan.

"If the radicals are not going to compromise on anything, then the whole universal suffrage process would be blocked. Well, isn't that the best for Beijing?"

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