The future of party politics
Dr Yeung Sum, Chairman of Democratic Party and Legislative Councillor, was the foundation's guest speaker on 28 April 2003. Below is the text of his speech.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the past five years, political parties, and the opposition party in particular, have experienced much more difficulty than before. A list of factors has hampered the development of political parties and I shall go into them one by one. This is not to suggest that there is only doom and gloom. The history of Hong Kong is laced with tales of crises that have been converted to opportunity, and this may well be the same for the development of political parties.
To begin with, we have a political system which inherently disabled the opposition party. We, the elected legislators, have the mandate of the people, but no power. Institutionally, the legislature is constrained by provisions in the Basic Law. The Basic Law stipulates that any motion, bill and amendment to government bills introduced by individual members of the Legislative Council shall require a simple majority vote of each of the two groups of members present, namely members returned by functional constituencies and those returned by geographical constituencies through direct elections and by Election Committee. This separate group voting system had blighted most of our motions, no matter whether they have legislative effect or not. Private members' bills can be introduced only if they do not relate to public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government. In the past four years, none of the private members' bill proposed by the democratic camp could be tabled. These two provisions act as a "tight band" limiting legislators' role in criticising government policies.
Having only 20 votes in the Geographical Constituency, the democratic camp can hardly block the government from introducing legislation which is clearly against public opinion. Legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law is such an example. Even though public opinion is clearly against the legislation, with only 20 votes, the democratic camp can in no way block such legislation from going ahead. Another recent example is the motion urging the appointment of an Inquiry Committee, and another motion calling for the setting up of a Select Committee to investigate the car-gate incident of the Financial Secretary. Both motions were vetoed in the Functional Constituency bloc. The inability of the opposition party, or the democratic camp to prompt government actions, or block government decisions, has rendered the opposition party powerless. With the appointment of James Tien and Tsang Yok-sing as Exco members, there is virtually little chance for the democratic opposition to cooperate with them even on livelihood issues. Their status as Exco members render them a new political elite with the advantage of executive power on their side. It does nothing to strengthen the role of the legislature, but represents a substantial challenge to the pro-democracy ''opposition'' in Legco. It has been more and more difficult for the democratic camp to survive. Posing a threat to the government becomes an almost impossible mission.
The government hopes that with the appointment of the chairman of the Liberal Party, James Tien, and that of DAB, Tsang Yok-sing to the Executive Council, it can push through its policies more easily in the Legislative Council. The government may be successful in gaining enough votes to push through any policy in Legco. But this also disabled the LP and DAB as a party in articulating the interests of their supporters, the DAB in particular. Very often, the DAB has to abandon its stance and vote for the government, as in the increase of toll fees for Cross Harbour Tunnel in July 1999, and in reducing the wages of Civil Servants in June 2002. In the former case, the DAB legislators proposed a freeze on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel tolls which was a direct challenge to the government's bid to raise the toll by 100 per cent. But when the debate over the proposal got under way in the Legislative Council, the party suddenly abandoned their populist stance and decided to throw in its lot with the government. In the latter case, Legco scrutinised the bill which would provide the legal foundation for the pay cut of Civil Servants. While the Democrats adamantly refused to support the legislation which overrode the collective bargaining power of Civil Servants, the DAB voted for it, probably at the risk of losing support from civil servants. In the elections to come, the bondage between the Liberal Party as well as DAB with the government and its mal-administration may be a liability rather than an asset.
Not only is the opposition camp institutionally incapacitated, the role played by the Democrats in representing the masses is also not appreciated by the government. Right before the Budget was announced, the Chief Executive met business representatives and pro-Beijing groups in the Legislative Council, as well as chambers of commerce to solicit their views on the Budget and lobby them for their support for the profits tax increase. Mr. Tung bluntly left out the democratic camp. The administration does not see a need to cooperate, or even communicate with the opposition camp, simply because it has already secured enough votes in Legco. The role of the opposition camp has been significantly reduced to that of making noise, and not effective opposition in the sense that it can block government policies. This gradually make people feel more powerless than ever. People's discontent with the Chief Executive and the administration as a whole seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the Legislative Council, as only 20 members will help them speak out while the government has all the effective tools to block the opposition.
Political parties can hardly become full-fledged unless there is full democracy, and people are fully empowered to choose their own leaders. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong can adopt full elections for the Chief Executive and legislature after 2007, pending strict requirements including consent of a two-thirds majority in Legco and the Chief Executive. Mr Tung has never been interested in democracy and this is no new hat. And the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Stephen Lam has made it clear that the Review on Constitutional Development, which should have gone on for years, would be conducted only after the 2004 Legco Elections. According the Constitutional Affairs Bureau, it takes 15 to 22 months to make the necessary changes in law to change the formation of the Legislative Council, and for the Chief Executive to be democratically elected. That means direct elections for the Legco and for the Chief Executive cannot take place before 2007. Without a more democratically elected legislature, and a democratically elected Chief Executive, political parties can hardly assume a more important role in policy making.
At present, the resources given to each Legco member only allow each of them to operate an office with three to four employees on average. This is all we have for both developing services at the community level and for conducting policy research. And they are equally important. At the local community level, a Legco member returned by the geographical constituency has to serve one fifth of the population in Hong Kong. It is difficult to provide voters with extensive services given tight resources. The government has announced its plan to subsidise candidates with a certain percentage of votes in the Legislative Council. If this can be extended to the District Board elections, political parties with more votes would get more resources and help them in their development.
In western democracies, a government is formed by the majority party in the legislature. And the chief executive comes from a party with a broad base of support. In Hong Kong, the government's dislike for political parties is well-known. It is stipulated in the "Chief Executive Elections Ordinance" that the Chief Executive nominee, once elected, is required within seven working days to declare that he is not affiliated to any political party. He also has to lodge an undertaking that he will not become a member of any political party during his term. But his counterparts in western democracies often have party affiliations. This stipulation is clearly discriminatory and but our attempts to abolish it were vetoed in the Legislative Council.
Unlike western democracies, no political party in Hong Kong will become a ruling party. Making policy proposals will at best demonstrate the capacity of a political party in formulating policy alternatives, but they have no chance at all to demonstrate their ability to run a government. I am not suggesting that political parties at present are not making policy proposals in a responsible manner. But the fact that parties are reduced to "pressure groups" hampers them from developing into a party with a vision of ruling Hong Kong. In this connection, we find it difficult to recruit new talent too. A politician or political party needs a stage to show their talent. But where is the stage now? We have only a stage to make known our views.
Perhaps the HKSAR government is among the few exceptions in the world that can rule with so low a level of support. In a public opinion poll conducted in March by the University of Hong Kong, the level of satisfaction with the government was only 12%. A poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong after the SARS outbreak showed almost two-thirds of respondents said Mr Tung was not fit for the post of Chief Executive. About 55 per cent said he should go. That our administration is ruling with so low a level of support is unrivalled, except, perhaps, in totalitarian countries.
This is a valuable experience for the people of Hong Kong. They have become more aware than ever of the importance of having the right to choose their own leaders. For years, whenever people are asked when they would like to have direct elections for the Chief Executive, an overwhelming majority of 70% said "next term", meaning as soon as possible. Now, they have changed their minds, and would like to have it "tomorrow".
The development of party politics has been hampered by a long list of unfavourable factors that are likely to remain. But the chance for democracy to come rests with our people. The only way for democracy to come is for the masses to show that they are not going to take things silently. So, speak up and vote. Voice out you views and the dream will come true.