Chief Executive-elect CY Leung warns legislators not to ‘play politics’ – which raises the question of what exactly we elect them to do. The lawmakers concerned are the radicals of People Power and the League of Social Democrats currently attempting to filibuster the government’s by-elections bill. The pro-government forces are seeking to portray the spoiling tactics as an irresponsible waste of time and, of course, money. The pan-democrats are, as ever, splintered and not articulating a convincing defence of their position (or positions).
The by-elections bill was prompted by the ‘five constituencies referendum’ in February 2010. One pro-democrat legislator from each geographical constituency resigned, thus triggering by-elections that, they maintained, could serve as a direct, popular vote on a single issue. This stunt – occasionally used in fully democratic jurisdictions – could have worked magnificently had the pro-democrats chosen an appropriate time and purpose. Instead, it was a flop.
The Democratic Party didn’t take part but just sat by in a huff. The pro-government parties were under orders not to take part in the by-elections, leaving the polls one-horse races and pointless. And the burning issue of principle over which the five resigned was constitutional reform – of endless fascination to them, but mind-numbingly uninspiring by then to most of the population.
To Beijing’s officials, however, this mechanism posed a serious theoretical threat to the Hong Kong government’s legitimacy and ability to rule, and thus ultimately to Communist Party control. Although a by-election could never serve as a true, binding referendum, it could be presented as one, and even accepted as one by the populace. To cadres who are uncomfortable enough with plain everyday opinion polls, legislators’ ability to trigger a by-election had to go.
Calling the stunt a loophole, and emphasizing the financial cost of by-elections, the government set out to do Beijing’s bidding. Officials found, however, that leaving vacated seats empty would be unconstitutional, and passing them on to runners-up in the previous election too absurd for the public to accept. Eventually, they found a sort-of solution to address what they called the Mischief arising from resignations of five Legislative Council Members. It bars a resigning legislator from running again for six months, but it could still be used to trigger a by-election/quasi-referendum. Beijing probably doesn’t really like it. Public opinion seems unmoved. The only positive outcome, if you can call it that, is that then-Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam emerged with his role as a paid liar intact.
Now the bill is being filibustered. As with the by-election stunt, Beijing’s officials in Hong Kong will be telling their local counterparts to ban such procedural sabotage; again, the device is, theoretically, ultimately a challenge to the Communist Party’s right to absolute political power. And again, we hear these tactics described as an ‘abuse’ or a ‘loophole’.
Although we have all heard of filibusters elsewhere, it’s not often we get to see one up-close (pro-establishment lawmakers and then-Constitutional Affairs Secretary Michael Suen did it in 1999 to kill off the Urban and Regional Councils, but no-one’s mentioning that at the moment). They’re incredibly hard work. CY Leung would like the electorate to take revenge against lawmakers using such tactics in September’s elections. Another possibility is that the radical legislators will attract a new wave of admiring voters for their stamina and determination in introducing 1,300 amendments and quoting chunks of scripture at snail-pace in the chamber. Indeed, both could happen. Hong Kong has not seen the last electoral fun in 2012.