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Easing Beijing's fear about direct voting in HK

Officers counting votes for the Sept 9 polls. Beijing's proxies have finally beaten the 60-40 barrier 15 years after the 1997 handover. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


Hong Kong's recent Legislative Council (LegCo) elections have important implications for the direct election of its chief executive in 2017.

The LegCo election results should boost Beijing's confidence in granting the Special Administrative Region (SAR) universal suffrage for the next chief executive polls, as it had promised to do in 2005.

For the first time since the handover in 1997, the usual 60-40 split of votes between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps respectively was breached. In the September 9 election, this became 56-43, with the pro-Beijing camp gaining on the pan-democrats.

In the so-called five "super seats", a newly created functional constituency, the split was 50.3 per cent in favour of the pan-democrats versus 49.7 per cent for the pro-Beijing camp, which took two of the seats. The election for these new seats - on the basis of one-man-one-vote with the whole SAR as a single constituency - is closest to what it would be like in a truly universal suffrage system for the election of the chief executive.

On Hong Kong Island, the political and economic centre of gravity of the SAR which also happened to be the traditional stronghold of pro-democracy candidates, the pan-democrats' vote share was lowered to about 55 per cent against 45 per cent for the pro-Beijing camp, a substantial drop from all previous elections.

This means that when universal suffrage is introduced, Beijing's preferred candidate would stand a good chance of being elected.

Beijing had been deferring universal suffrage stipulated in the Basic Law, the mini-Constitution, because it feared that given the consistent distribution of votes in favour of the democrats, this mode of election would return people it disliked.

It had made it known that the SAR would not get universal suffrage unless this method could guarantee the return of pro-Beijing candidates. Now with the iconic 60-40 divide breached, Beijing would be more at ease in honouring its promise, that the SAR could have universal suffrage for the chief executive election by 2017 and for the legislative elections by 2020.

Another outcome of the elections was that the veto power of the pro-democracy camp was weakened. This camp garnered a total of 27 seats in the recent elections, the same as in the 2008 polls. However, the LegCo has been enlarged from 60 to 70 seats since then.

In other words, while the pan-democrats retained their veto power - with one-third of the LegCo votes needed for a veto - this power, defined as the number of seats it held over the total number of seats, was much diluted, from roughly 45 per cent to 38 per cent.

The pan-democrats had been relying on this veto power to thwart legislation that in their view violated the interests of the SAR, as they did in 2003 against the enactment of a security Bill, and again in 2005 against a Bill that slowed down the democratisation process.

This veto power is also the only weapon they have with which to stop the adoption of a Beijing-backed, restrictive form of election for the chief executive, which may then be universal suffrage in name only and not in substance.

This veto power has become very fragile now. All Beijing needs would be to persuade at most four of the democratic legislators to switch their votes, and the veto power will vanish.

Another long-observed pattern, that a larger turnout rate tended to favour the democrats, also did not happen this time.

At 53 per cent, the recent turnout rate was the third-highest in the last 15 years, but the pan-democratic camp did not get better results. For example, the traditional lead enjoyed by pro-democracy candidates in geographical constituencies, where candidates were returned by direct votes, disappeared this time. In 2008, the pro-democrats took 19 geographic seats - this time, they took 18 seats.

In contrast, the pro-Beijing camp's share of seats increased from 11 to 17.

The majority of newly mobilised votes most likely went to pro-Beijing candidates.

The latest elections also demonstrated vividly the ability of pro-Beijing parties to mobilise voters and distribute their votes among their preferred candidates to ensure the maximum number of seats that could be grabbed.

For example, this time they mobilised more than 100,000 "new voters" from the "above 65" age group and bussed them to the various polling stations.

There was also more overt canvassing of votes by Beijing. Veteran political observer Allen Lee, a former member of China's Parliament, admitted that Beijing's arm in Hong Kong, the Central Liaison Office, had called "advising" him on whom to vote.

Thanks to meticulous calculation and organisation, 13 of the 14 candidates belonging to the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing party, won seats, a success rate of 93 per cent, which is the highest among all major parties.

Fifteen years after the hand-over of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing's proxies have finally beaten the 60-40 barrier in the LegCo elections, diluted the veto power of the opposition and developed a sophisticated electioneering technique.

Beijing should be in a stronger position now to consider universal suffrage for the SAR.

Hopefully, but rather ironically, the poorer showing of the pan-democrats at these LegCo elections will help alleviate Beijing's fears over universal suffrage and Hong Kongers will get what was promised them.


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