SCMP Tuesday, December 5, 2000
Poll winner set to shape Legco
It is generally agreed that the Legislative Council by-election to be held in the Hong Kong Island constituency on Sunday is largely a two-horse race between Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) candidate Christopher Chung Shu-kan and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, an independent backed by democratic groups.
There is a sharp contrast between the two candidates and the close race between the two highlights the alternative routes that Legco and Hong Kong's two-tier political system could follow.
The first issue concerns the effect of political parties. Interestingly, throughout their campaigns the two candidates have adopted diametrically different positions on this issue. Mr Chung's campaign consistently emphasises the fact that he is standing as a candidate for the DAB. Apart from pointing out that he has been a district board member for more than 10 years and knows well the concerns of ordinary people, he has made little attempt to highlight any individual achievement or quality. In an RTHK forum last Saturday, he went back time and again to his belief that the DAB is a force for stability in Hong Kong, and argued that he should be elected because it would increase the strength of that force.
By contrast Ms Eu, Senior Counsel, is reliant on her personal qualities and achievements. Although actively supported by many democratic political groups, she takes pains to emphasise that she runs as an independent and, win or lose, will not join any political party. Her selling point is her ability to handle Legco's tasks of vetting legislation and overseeing public policy and administration. She also points to her involvement in public affairs, having twice been chairman of the Bar Association and spent more than 10 years serving on the Consumer Council and its committees.
Both these positions came under attack from other candidates. Mr Chung was accused of having no mind of his own, while Ms Eu was attacked for not being truly independent because she was supported by the Democratic Party who, it was argued, should have fielded one of its own junior members to run instead.
So which is it going to be? Does Legco need greater strength for one political party? Or does it need more well-qualified people acting independently? Is there room in Legco's development for independents, even with the support of political parties?
When I was in London last week, the by-election campaign for the seat for West Bromwich was in the news. There, it seemed that it hardly mattered who the individual candidates happened to be. Instead the battle lines were drawn between the platforms and popularity of the political parties to which they belong.
The British House of Commons has more than 600 members. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead - a former British chancellor of the exchequer - once said that there could not be a meaningful full-time job for all of them. Since it was the parties which mattered, individual Members of Parliament were there to represent party strength and provide the pool from which a party leadership might emerge.
By contrast, Legco's 60 members may be too few to tackle the actual workload of the hundreds of bills that are presented during each session. The minority of members willing to do the work are stretched to the limit, and there are those who feel the need to replace people like Ronald Arculli and Christine Loh Kung-wai, who both did much bills committee work but decided not to run for re-election last September. This may be a reason why so many Democrat Legco members are eager for Ms Eu to be elected.
On the other hand, those who strongly believe in an executive-led government see pro-democracy members as disruptive and anti-government. Their argument goes that if the Government can be trusted to do an honest and competent job, then there is no need for any over-zealous vetting process. It is more a matter of suggesting improvements, pointing out inadequacies and urging the Government to be more expeditious: a job requiring no unusual personal calibre.
This is a significant development and not without irony. Years ago, the conservative sectors of the community opposed democratisation strenuously for fear of giving impetus to the development of political parties which, it was feared, would destabilise Hong Kong. Now, strengthening the right political party is being put forward as good for stability.
A second issue concerns the future of the current two-tier system of representative government. The abolition of the municipal councils was proposed and supported by some on the basis that a three-tier system was excessive for Hong Kong. But what is to be the link between Legco and the district councils, the successors to the former district boards?
Again the contrast between the two candidates poses interesting alternatives. Mr Chung's strength lies in his district-level community work. Ms Eu has never been a district board member and has little or no district-level community work experience. She has agreed that, if elected, she will set up one or more district offices and take up district-level concerns and individual complaints. Mr Chung, if elected, will certainly be expected to allocate at least some of his time for Legco business.
But the nature of work on Legco is distinctly different from that of district councils. So the fundamental question is what is the link going to be between the two? If the role of political parties is emphasised, then the district council member elected into Legco may choose not to change much of what he does. The central party machinery can formulate the policies to which its members then give support.
But where no political party intervenes, the directly elected Legco member must form his or her own links to enable him or her to contribute to Legco's work without losing sight of individual grievances and the implementation of policies at the district level. One way is by actively liaising with district council members.
While institutional links between Legco and district councils should be established in any event, this is likely to be even more important for Legco members not affiliated to any political party.
So far the Government has done nothing to redeem its promise to enlarge the functions and powers of the district councils. The DAB and the Democratic Party are interested in that they have members in district councils, and some DAB and Democrat Legco members are also on district councils.
Of the present 24 directly elected members in Legco, Andrew Wong Wang-fat is the only independent, but even then he was a former member of a district board. The scenario of an independent seeking direct election is a strong reminder that some links independent of party involvement need to be put in place.
During the heated debate on the introduction of direct elections for Legco about 15 years ago, some of those who opposed it argued that direct elections would deter well-qualified people and only encourage the "free lunch brigade". They have since been proved wrong. Also, elections have since become a much more sophisticated business, and the rules of the game are widely accepted by all players. The contest between Ms Eu and Mr Chung proves the point.
The by-election on Sunday is therefore full of significance, both in its process and result. Whoever wins, the point will have been established that Hong Kong people are ready for greater democratisation. But the turnout rate, and who turns out to be the winner, will have implications for the way Legco is going to function in the coming four years.
Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a legislator representing the legal profession.