Saturday, 6 September 2008

Course Of HK Democracy May Be At Stake In Vote

A legislative election here Sunday could have broad implications for the democratic future of this Chinese special administrative region as well as for its closer ties with Beijing.

The campaign, which will usher in a new generation of leaders from several newly formed political parties, takes place against a backdrop of growing economic angst in this prosperous city. Unemployment and economic growth are at healthy levels. But inflation is rising, the stock market is slumping and property values are starting to look wobbly.

Donald Tsang, who was re-elected by an 800-member election committee as Hong Kong's chief executive last year, has seen his approval rating hit a three-year low of 39% (41% disapprove of him) after several recent missteps, according to a survey by Hong Kong University's Public Opinion Program, which has been tracking his popularity since 2005. The fumbles have chipped away at the goodwill Mr. Tsang has enjoyed since taking the reins from an unpopular predecessor.

For Hong Kong's pro-democratic parties, it will be crucial to retain the one-third of the 60-seat Legislative Council they need to keep veto power over constitutional amendments. In 2005, they used that power to kill a constitutional amendment that the government said would bring Hong Kong closer to direct elections, but which they criticized as too weak.

Hong Kong, which has separate political, legal and economic systems from the mainland, holds elections for lawmakers. But only about half of the Legislative Council's seats are elected by the general population, with the rest selected by business and trade groups and other constituencies. The council can only veto or amend legislation proposed by the chief executive. The arrangement has bolstered parties that often run on economic-growth platforms and tend to be pro-Beijing.

Beijing promised eventual direct elections for Hong Kong as a term of its return to Chinese control in 1997. But it left details vague. Whether pro-democratic parties can retain their veto power will be especially critical in the new legislature's four-year term, because the government has promised to address the most controversial details governing direct elections by 2012.

Though Mr. Tsang's unpopularity should be a boon to the pro-democratic parties, the election falls during a relatively quiet period in the democracy debate. Instead, polls show economic and livelihood issues are at the forefront of voters' minds this year, which should benefit business-friendly parties.

'The pro-democrats only have one issue -- they're out of touch with ordinary citizens' lives,' says Choy So-yuk, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who is defending her seat in the election. Right now, pro-democratic legislators hold 25 seats, but they face stiff challenges from high-profile candidates more closely aligned with the government. Also, two pro-democratic icons -- Democratic Party founder Martin Lee and Anson Chan, a popular former top official who recast herself as a pro-democrat last year -- won't be seeking seats in this election.

'The pro-democratic camp is in a difficult situation,' says Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong who is coordinating campaign strategy for the pro-democratic Civic Party. The message Mr. Cheng is trying to drive home: 'Hong Kong needs checks and balances. Hong Kong voters are sophisticated, and they know that if you give the government too much control, there could be disaster.'

A post-Olympics glow could also benefit pro-establishment parties. Over the weekend, China's 63 Olympic gold medalists were brought to Hong Kong for performances before roaring crowds and on prime-time television. Critics have charged the government with trying to tip the playing field in favor of pro-establishment parties, a charge that officials deny.

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