SCMP Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Slicing up the political pie


The Legislative Council elections produced no dramatic changes to the political scene, at least in the short run. None of the major political groupings got a majority of seats in the new legislature. The balance of power between the pro-democracy forces and the pro-China-and-conservative camp remains largely unchanged. Members who take a more sympathetic attitude towards the Tung Chee-hwa government are in a slight but safe majority. The new Legco is broadly similar to the one constituted after the 1998 elections.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) originally expected its vote tally to increase to about 30 per cent this year from 25 per cent in 1998. In a "major surprise", the scandal surrounding the party's former vice-chairman Gary Cheng Kai-nam had no impact on the DAB's support, and the party achieved its original target.
The Democrats' 7.9 percentage-point drop is due largely to the better performance achieved by other like-minded forces. Pro-democracy forces have maintained their majority in the geographical constituencies. Even so, new elements of uncertainty might emerge. Although the DAB's leaders have good reason to celebrate despite the Cheng crisis, the DAB will be tested in future.
Pressure for Mr Cheng to resign from the new legislature will grow. Mr Cheng must seriously consider whether to stay and face possible humiliation and embarrassment during a Legco investigation into his alleged misconduct. (He failed to declare to the former legislature his ownership of a public-affairs consultancy whose clients include major corporations and utilities.) At stake is more than Mr Cheng's political future. If he decides to bow out, the DAB will be dealt a severe blow. Despite its impressive electoral performance, the pro-China flagship will be challenged to maintain a strong leadership without Mr Cheng and to groom second-tier leaders.
Former Democratic Party vice-chairman Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said although the DAB had gained in the short run, it would lose in the long run. "The party has a shortage of generals. I believe [Gary] Cheng Kai-nam will have to step down and stay away from politics for a long period of time. Other leaders, such as [DAB veteran and unionist] Chan Yuen-han, have increasingly distanced themselves from the DAB leadership. They have found constraints in grooming leaders," Dr Cheung said. "Although the party has been able to secure the 'iron votes', it faces a more serious problem of how to broaden its sources of support in future, as its integrity and credibility have been tarnished. The impact on the DAB in the long run is unfathomable."
The former Democratic Party leader, who was removed after a revolt by the "young turks", said: "We have not been able to increase our sources of voter support. It will be a good thing if our setback in the polls results in the party's positive development."
Despite the party's setback in the election, Dr Cheung said he did not expect its internal divisions to worsen. "I think the young turks will keep a low profile and recuperate in the short run. They themselves have split into two factions. Some, such as Tsang Kin-shing, have quit. Others, such as Andrew To Kwan-hang, have decided to stay and take part in the elections. As Lau Chin-shek has already gone, the young turks will not be able to make a lot of impact within the party in the short run. The greatest challenge for the Democrats is how to broaden their base of support," he said.
Chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said at a post-election press conference: "First, we have to admit mistakes. Secondly, we have to go down to districts to listen. Thirdly, we have to start afresh." Although a lack of resources has affected the party's district work, the Democrats must solve a more fundamental problem with their mindset about party positioning. Obsessed with their phenomenal success in the 1991 and 1995 elections, the party's leaders have come to believe in the magical effect of the party label. But the days when anyone carrying a "pigeon", the Democrats' logo, would win a seat are long gone. The party urgently needs to review its positioning, strategy and long-term goals.
Lau Siu-kai, of Chinese University's department of sociology, said: "The Democrats can no longer chant empty slogans about democracy and human rights without addressing the concerns of the middle class and the grassroots. A split within the party is unsurprising. There will be different divisions within the democrats. There might be a social-democratic party, a populist party and a labour party."
With the exception of the district-based Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL), other key political groupings performed dismally in the polls. Some are on the verge of being marginalised. The defeats of Liberal Party members Edward Ho Sing-tin in the architectural, surveying and planning functional constituency and Ho Sai-chu in the Election Committee constituency have further exposed the party's shaky base of support, which is concentrated in business-oriented constituencies. The Liberals' challenges will increase once the Election Committee constituency is abolished in 2004 and the DAB becomes more powerful.
The Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, whose seats drop from six to four, appears to have little choice but to be "absorbed" by the DAB in future direct polls. Tang Siu-tong's marginal victory in New Territories West in an alliance with the DAB indicates he might have lost the seat had he run separately on a Progressive Alliance ticket. The party will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a clear identity. The DAB's leading role as the "love China, love Hong Kong" political force will now be strengthened.
"Long hair" Leung Kwok-hung's impressive debut in New Territories East - with 18,235 votes, or 5.92 per cent - shows there is room in the proportional-representation system for political aspirants without strong party machinery. More importantly, his win reflects strong support for the rights of the poor and strong opposition to the Chief Executive and the Government. Mr Leung has called in his platform for Mr Tung to resign and for the gap between rich and poor to be narrowed. Candidates with similar appeals, such as unionist Leung Yiu-chung and the ADPL, have performed well. Unionist Chan Yuen-han who led the DAB ticket in Kowloon East and won the highest number of votes there (more than 108,000), lost no time in assuring her supporters that she would push for a solution to the income-inequality issue.
Professor Lau said the Government must engage in "more give and take" on livelihood issues and establish "shifting alliances" in the new Legco to uphold the executive's ability to govern. The dependability of friendly parties, such as the DAB and the Liberals, would decrease as the parties set their eyes on direct polls in future, he said.
"The DAB will try to distance itself from the Government to pave the way for its party development. Neither the DAB nor the Liberal Party want to be labelled as pro-government parties. The Government's ability to form loose coalitions in Legco will be put to the test," Professor Lau said.
The diminishing influence of the two major parties - the Democrats and the DAB - in the new Legco will make it more difficult for the Government to manoeuvre. Legco will become more unpredictable. And with no sign that Mr Tung and Beijing are prepared to change the relationship between the executive and the legislature, there is little likelihood that relations will improve. The political skills of Mr Tung and his team will be put to the test. That was the case before Sunday's elections, and it will remain so after the new legislature gets under way.
Chris Yeung ( ) is the Post's Political Editor.