It looks like the sort of shallow, vindictive, spiteful and constitutionally and ethically dubious bit of electoral jiggery-pokery Lee Kuan Yew would have come up with, had opposition legislators existed in meaningful numbers back in the days when the carrier of the world’s mightiest human DNA was single-handedly carving Asia’s pinnacle of civilization out of a garbage-strewn wasteland of undisciplined, gum-chewing, inferior humanity. As of 2012, if a democratically elected (as opposed to the other sort) Hong Kong Legislative Council member resigns or otherwise leaves his seat, there will be no by-election: the runner-up in his constituency will automatically replace him.
To give the proposal a veneer of legitimacy, the government says it will apply to vacancies caused by death or disqualification. But the real aim is clear: to prevent a re-run of the episode last year when a number of pro-democracy lawmakers resigned in order to trigger by-elections – which they styled a ‘referendum’ – on the issue of political reform.
The stunt was a failure. The pro-democrats were split, with the Democratic Party refusing to take part. They had chosen the wrong issue; after years of being worn down by Beijing’s refusal to budge, people saw little prospect of universal suffrage. The government and its supporters, notably in the media, energetically demonized the exercise as a money-wasting outrage committed by dangerous radicals (and still do). The opposition failed to articulate officials’ mendacity (the government, sitting on a vast horde of fiscal reserves, had unnecessarily held elections on separate dates in 2007 to boost its favourites’ chances). Loyalist politicians, under pressure from Beijing as well as the local administration, reluctantly boycotted the poll. Only 17% of voters turned out.
Yet such a tactic could be a brilliant success. Imagine the pro-democrats acting in unison for once, when the time is right, and creating a single vacancy through a resignation in each of the five geographical constituencies in order to trigger a ‘referendum’ on property developer hegemony. It is fear that these clowns might actually get their act together that has prompted this proposal to ban by-elections.
Hong Kong has signed international conventions on the integrity of the political representation process, and this idea has ‘judicial review material’ written all over it. The government laughably claims that replacing a poll winner with a candidate who lost, probably from a rival camp, “will reflect the overall will of the electors expressed through the election.” It also claims that some other jurisdictions do something similar – citing, after scraping the bottom of the barrel of examples, Tasmania. (Presumably such places with exotic voting systems fill the vacancy with the runner-up from the same party, which is a totally different principle, but then again devout Christian Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam dispenses with the Ninth Commandment for a living.)
Who is so afraid of the concept of a make-believe referendum in Hong Kong that they will go to these lengths to prevent it from reoccurring? The answer clearly must be Beijing.
Central People’s Government emissaries frothed at the mouth in May 2010 about how Hong Kong was not entitled to hold referendums because the Basic Law does not mention them. Leaving aside the fact that the Basic Law doesn’t mention all sorts of things, our own local officials no doubt reassured them that it was not a referendum at all, simply an unpopular by-election to which someone had attached a meaningless label. But that would have cut no ice in Beijing. Such a vote could not be rigged; it had the potential to convincingly legitimize opposition (splittist, unpatriotic, blah blah) forces; therefore, it must not be allowed to happen again – end of story.
The clunkiness of the government’s proposal, the feeble justification of the blatantly anti-democratic principle involved, the reliance on how “the money could be better spent on something else” as an argument; all these suggest that Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his administration have been pushed into doing this. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see it as the Big Lychee’s own little contribution to the panicky, paranoid, internet-censoring, artist-arresting clampdown on the – imaginary or real – stirrings of jasmine revolution in China.
Still, that leaves Long Hair and the Civic Party with a good 12 months to hold the Great People’s ‘Hang All Property Tycoons’ Plebiscite.