What with GOP fears of a Sarah Palin vs Obama presidential race in two years, the prospect of Tea Partiers getting into DC in today’s mid-term elections, the US/Japan/probably India/everyone else lining up to base ships at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay as part of the evil global mega-plot to keep China down, the launch of yet another amazing new search engine we’ll try once and forget, and all the other excitements of early November 2010, it’s easy to ignore the minor tweaks that the Hong Kong government has announced to the election system for 2012. But duty calls.
One of the most surprising events on the Big Lychee’s political scene this year came in late June when members of the Democratic Party convinced Beijing to make a concession and agree to an electoral reform that had previously been ruled out by Hong Kong and Chinese officials. The momentousness of the symbolism here – the Communist Party giving in to unpatriotic and hostile elements whose existence it previously refused to acknowledge – went over most people’s heads as our local politicians immediately started bickering about the rights and wrongs of negotiating with tyrannical regimes and, especially, what the deal would mean in practice. To largely widespread yawns, the government released the details over the weekend.
The ‘method of selecting the Chief Executive’, as it is quaintly known, remains the same as before. Beijing decides who will replace Donald Tsang; the Election Committee, a small group of mainly obedient Hongkongers, conducts an embarrassing make-believe election locally that affirms the choice; the Central Government then makes a big show of accepting this result and officially appointing the guy. The Election Committee will rise in number in 2012 from 800 to 1,200 – to no effect whatsoever.
The other part of the reform is the expansion of the Legislative Council while maintaining the existing 50-50 balance between popularly elected geographical constituencies and essentially rigged functional ones. The five new geographical seats will be crammed into the existing five constituencies, meaning that such districts will return as many as nine members. This will make it even easier for wacko/misfit/Long-Hair-type candidates to win a seat with less than, say, 10% of the vote. Presumably, the idea of redistricting was too much like hard work for weasel-like Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam.
As with the Election Committee, Beijing’s original plan was to match that with five new, mostly-rigged functional seats to avoid any shift in the power balance. The idea, already rejected once by pro-democracy lawmakers before the 2008 polls, was to let District Council members – padded out by pro-Beijing appointees – elect the new, mostly loyalist, legislators. The Democrats’ achievement, other than simply being let in the door, was to convince the Rulers of All Under Heaven to restrict nomination to directly elected Councilors and let the general electorate vote for the five new members.
Needless to say, Beijing would not have agreed to this if it led to a meaningful shift in the balance of power, but it has the potential effect of a slight one that could theoretically alter the outcome of a vote in marginal cases. So Stephen Lam’s main priority has been to find a way – the lamer and thus more contemptuous of public intelligence, the better – to rig the system. He has done this by requiring a proportional representation list system like that used in geographical votes, backed by a fairly high nomination threshold for candidates. With only five city-wide, at-large seats up for grabs, this stacks the odds in favour of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, with its CCP, United Front campaign money and machine. The pro-democrats, with far broader public appeal, could match the DAB’s efforts if they worked together, which of course they won’t. Much whining has resulted.
For some reason – maybe something in the tea – several serving legislators like Regina Ip got it into their heads that they should get a District Council seat, get nominated, and run for one of the five new city-wide seats. What this would gain them, other than being dubbed ‘super-lawmakers’ by the press, is unclear. They now seem to be changing their minds, as are several non-legislators who were thinking of doing the same. These are mainly pro-government people from business, which suggests that Beijing has prodded Lam into tilting the system purely for the trusty, patriotic DAB’s benefit, and keeping vaguely friendly ex-civil servants and tycoons frozen out. (The GOP establishment petrified of Palin must be jealous.) The Liberals are particular losers; even the Democratic Party could get a couple of the new seats unless it screws everything up. They have nearly two years to work on that.