Dysfunctional politics

South China Morning Post | 2011-02-17 
EDT13| EDT| Voices:Hong Kong| By Dennis Kwok 

One clear sign of change that emerged from last year’s constitutional debate is the shift in the political fault line over functional constituencies. Even hardliners now concede that the current system of trade seats in the Legislative Council needs to change. They have moved from a position of denial to one of reluctant acceptance of reform.

It has taken us more than 20 years to arrive at this consensus. Unfortunately, unless these trade seats are ultimately abolished, this debate will continue to dominate our political discourse.

The conservatives say that functional constituencies serve as a counterweight against populism. All Western constitutions, they argue, have similar measures of protection. They often cite the US electoral college vote system as an example, pointing out that even the US president is not democratically elected by the people.

The electoral college vote system was designed by the founders of the United States as a way to preserve the union of what was then a fragile federation of states, by giving small rural states the same political weight as bigger states. More than 200 years later, the demographics have changed so much that small states now wield enormous and disproportionate influence over the political process, with each vote in a small state carrying on average three times more weight than a vote in other states. The US political system is in poor health because of the outdated and undemocratic features within its constitution.

Contrast this with the situation in Hong Kong, where some 200,000 citizens and corporate bodies elect half our legislators, and only 800 individuals and groups – members of the Election Committee – can vote in the chief executive election. With about 3 million voters electing the other half of the legislature – lawmakers in geographical districts – this means that, in our system, a vote in the trade seat elections carries 15 times more weight than one in the geographical polls. These figures reveal the extremity of the situation.

Checks and balances are necessary in any mature political system, but the question is, at what cost? Businesses today are often blamed for all forms of social ills when, in fact, more than 90 per cent of successful businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises that provide jobs, create prosperity and spur innovation for Hong Kong’s economy. However, the trade seats are controlled by conglomerate vested interests serving no one but those who elect them. They are seen as a symbol of privilege, and their existence ironically incites the kind of populism that their defenders most fear.

For example, the financial and banking industries employ more than 150,000 professionals in Hong Kong, yet only a handful of voters are allowed to elect the Legco representatives for these sectors. The inability to consider the wider public interests is political short-sightedness.

Furthermore, our system has in place sufficient safeguards against populism. Article 74 of the Basic Law restricts the ability of individual Legco members to introduce any bill that involves government expenditure and policy. Consent from the chief executive is required. This constitutional safeguard is reinforced by a strong middle class, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary and a free press. Also, our proportional representation electoral system ensures a political scene with many political parties, making coalition government a necessity for effective governance. These measures provide the necessary checks and balances. Why do we still need functional constituencies, a 19th century colonial relic, to serve such a function?

These are questions that defenders of functional constituencies are finding increasingly hard to answer. The social costs of such a system are too much to bear for Hong Kong: our political discourse becomes ineffective, and our differences over public affairs are often unnecessarily magnified, restricting our ability to find common ground.

Last year, Hong Kong failed to make any headway in efforts to abolish this outdated and undemocratic system. Yet we must not leave the question of functional constituencies to the next generation and allow this single issue to continue to plague and dominate our political discourse. The challenges ahead for Hong Kong are far too great and we must not allow this infighting to go on. Functional constituencies must be abolished to make way for a more open society in the 21st century.

Dennis Kwok is chairman of the Civic Party’s constitution and governance policy branch

Copyright (c) 2011. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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