SCMP Monday, September 11, 2000


Turnout puzzle

Hong Kong's elusive voters almost confounded the experts again. Commentators and pollsters had been predicting that the turnout at yesterday's Legislative Council elections would be between 43 and 48 per cent. Last night, they barely heaved a sigh of relief that 43.57 per cent of the electorate voted.
Many voters were believed to have been turned off by several scandals about the integrity of candidates. Still, a drop of about 10 percentage points in the turnout was a cause for concern. Only last week, two surveys by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute and Lingnan University found that about 59 per cent of voters said they would definitely vote and about 14 per cent might not or would definitely not vote. Based on these findings and past figures, the turnout yesterday was expected to be in the mid-40s. In the event, it reached the lower end of the expected range.
While it is impossible to ascertain the exact reasons behind the electorate's relative lack of enthusiasm, it seems safe to say that the turnout confirmed at least two points - that weather is not necessarily a major factor affecting turnout and that the historic high figure in 1998 might have been an aberration.
In 1998, most experts predicted the turnout would range between 30 and 35 per cent, compared with 35.8 per cent in 1995 and 39.1 per cent in 1991. But the forecasts were proved to be wide of the mark because a record 1.49 million voters, or 53.29 per cent of the electorate, cast their ballots. This was despite pouring rain on polling day and the closure of one polling station due to flooding.
It was suggested that the turnout was boosted by the distribution of a set of two souvenir cards to each voter by the Government. While one card was sent to voters by mail with polling notices, voters had to turn up to get the other card to form a set. Moreover, clothing retailer Giordano, without consulting the authorities, offered to give a 40 per cent discount to customers with a set of cards. But to what extent the gimmick might have increased the turnout remains a mystery. There were also suggestions, again hard to prove, that voters felt a sudden burst of emotion to vote in 1998 because that was the first Legco election after the handover.
Would more voters have come out to vote on a sunny Sunday yesterday had there been no scandals during the campaign? Or could it be that a turnout of about 40 per cent is the norm in Hong Kong - the 1998 turnout being skewed by Giordano's sales ploy - as the turnouts in 1995 and 1991 were 35.8 or 39.1 per cent respectively?
If so, what does it tell us about Hong Kong's election culture in a political system in which the power to govern rests firmly in the hands of an administration headed by a chief executive elected by only 800 people?
Over the past week, it became increasingly clear that many voters did not know who to vote for. Some of the old faces have failed to perform while others have opted to quit the frustrating game of being a powerless legislator. Yet, the new faces do not look really promising.
The worst that could happen to Legco was for it to be starved of both talent and spectators. That could only be forestalled by adjusting its balance of power with the Government to make the game worth playing and watching.