Minority Rights in Governance: The Value of Opposition
Alan Kah-Kit LEONG
Leader, Civic Party, HKSAR
Hong Kong has been mourning the passing of Mr. Szeto Wah, an icon of the city’s democratic movement since the 1970s. Hong Kong people mourn not only Mr. Szeto’s demise, but also our inability to restore some fairness to distribution of political powers and some balance in government policies for social justice after more than 3 decades of pursuit of democracy.
The Status Quo
Legislators associated with the democratic movement like myself have since about 5 years ago been called “the Opposition” by the government. The word ‘’opposition’’ has a bad reputation, especially in Eastern cultures where conformity and unity are regarded as much more virtuous. “Opposition” is deemed unnecessary and is often seen only in a negative light. So much so that, in politics, opposition parties are often crushed, sidelined, or made irrelevant and unattractive by those in power. Some electoral systems are purposely designed to contain opposition, render them electorally ineffective. The system is designed so that the oppositions are unable to perform the function to act as the “check and balance” of executive power – the most basic function which one would expect them to perform in a modern society.
Hong Kong is no stranger to such a political system.
The presently constituted Legislative Council has 60 members, 30 of whom are directly elected from 5 Geographical Constituencies with an electorate of a total of 3.4 million voters. The other 30 are elected from Functional Constituencies when only about 220,000 companies, organizations and individuals belonging to a designated sector can vote. The rights to nominate and be nominated are also exclusively reserved to them. All private bills and motions must obtain half the votes of the Functional Constituencies legislators before they are passed. For an extreme example, there can be 45 votes in support of a private motion and yet cannot have it passed, if only 15 Functional Constituency Members abstain from voting. This effectively gives them a veto power over every important issue that matters to the Hong Kong People. Or, 3.4 million can be vetoed by 220,000.
Our Chief Executive is elected by a small circle of elites of 800, and it is they who decide the fate of Hong Kong’s politics. Opposition parties in Hong Kong are seen by those in power as an obstacle to effective governance, as a nuisance and distraction.
Universal Suffrage: Is the promise honoured?
Since Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997, we have been promised in the Basic Law, our mini constitution, universal suffrage for the elections of our Chief Executive, who is head of the Administration, and all members of the Legislature.
In our first 60-member Legislative Council after the reversion of sovereignty, there were 18 directly elected seats; those increased to 24 in the second council and 30 in the third. While we were expecting such gradual progress to deliver us, if not universal suffrage in 2008, at least more directly elected councilors to at least outnumber those returned by the functional constituencies, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee resolved in 2005 that the status quo should be kept so that directly elected councilors cannot be more than those elected by the businesses and professionals. In 2007, when Hong Kong was expecting progress in 2012, the NPCSC dictated to us, yet again, that the proportion between Geographical Constituencies and Functional Constituencies Members should still be retained even for 2012.
For election of the Chief Executive, the People of Hong Kong has yet to see or hear about any arrangement that respects our right to nominate and be nominated for the office.
Will the Promise be honoured?
In the 2007 decision of the NPCSC, it was mentioned that Hong Kong could elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017 at the earliest and that similar arrangements could be adopted for the Legislative Council afterwards. Our Chief Executive has interpreted that to mean universal suffrage for election of the Legislative Council in 2020 at the earliest.
Will that happen?
The government just introduced two bills into the Legislative Council making provisions for elections of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council in 2012. One thing is clear: the Central People’s Government wants to firmly control the rights to nominate and be nominated for half of the seats in the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. What the People of Hong Kong might be allowed to enjoy is just the right to vote.
2012 will be the last Chief Executive Election (once every 5 years) before 2017 and the second last Legislative Council Election before 2020 (once every 4 years). Given what we saw of the government’s proposed electoral models for elections of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council, there are practically no way that Hong Kong can see universal and equal suffrage implemented for elections in 2017 and 2020.
What the Opposition did?
Given the political status quo in Hong Kong, minority rights, whether it be the ever-widening rich-poor gap, the right to a reasonable living, the right to freedom of expression, the right to demonstration and assembly, the right to religious belief or the right of ethnic minorities to have equal education and employment opportunity, continue to be insufficiently provided for or safeguarded, and sometimes even neglected and ignored, by the government. The Opposition plays the guardian of minority rights and does everything to strive for universal suffrage in the election of political leaders.
In 2007 I decided to enter the election for Chief Executive of Hong Kong to run against the incumbent, Donald Tsang, so as to bring about a contested election. The contest produced 2 live television debates that lasted for a total of 3 hours and could be watched not only by the 7 million in Hong Kong, but also the 110 million in the Pearl River Delta. Through that election, Hong Kong people saw the value of opposition parties. We also saw the value in having the competition of ideas in public policies.
In 2010, 5 legislators of the Opposition resigned from their Geographical Constituencies seats to trigger territory-wide by-elections. It was a social movement that lasted for 6 months. During this time, Hong Kong people were focused just on how unfair and prejudicial Functional Constituencies have been in bringing about political domination by sectorial vested interests. Having gone through with this movement, people began to see clearer than ever the acutely unfair distribution of resources and wealth in Hong Kong, which is often described as the “deep-seated conflict”, could not be sufficiently tackled and resolved without the mandate of the people from the ballot box in truly democratic elections.
I believe Hong Kong took two important steps towards achieving genuine democracy by what the Opposition had done.
The Value of Opposition
Speaking as a political party leader and as a politician, I treasure my role in opposition, and I think I can do no better than to quote the former British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in how he saw the value of being in the opposition. He said
“I think the young men – and the older men – who came into Parliament as part of a huge Labour majority didn’t get the training we got. It’s a good thing for leaders of the House of Commons to have sat for some time in Opposition. Not too long. Too long a period of Opposition stales the mind. That was the trouble with the German Social Democrats: they had to criticize for so long they lost the faculty for being constructive.
If you could plan these things, I think it would be a good thing for everybody to start in the House of Commons in Opposition. I think the Labour M.P. who starts off on the Government side misses something, and the man who starts off virtually as a Labour Minister, as several did just after the war, misses much more.
It’s useful to have to sit in Opposition for your first few years, but it is particularly good for people to have to sit there unable to say very much while the ex-Ministers and Privy Councillors are being called on all the time. Young chaps like me had to just sit there and keep quiet; but we could listen and watch points. Very important. Whoever the man is, and whatever his gifts of leadership, he needs a great deal of experience of the House of Commons.”
Of course we get to do much more than to just sit and watch in Hong Kong’s legislature. We actively use our position as opposition to hold the government to account.
Being in the Opposition, as Attlee pointed out, is essential for any politician and political party. Most importantly, it humbles oneself, and humility is the most important quality of leadership; for it enables oneself to see one’s mistakes. Good political judgment only comes from the capacity of learning from one’s mistakes.
To me, the most interesting part of Attlee’s quote however is that one cannot be in Opposition for too long a period of time, for it “stales the mind”.
This is precisely why, even in Hong Kong’s current political system, where there is no hope in us being elected to power anytime soon, the Civic Party, founded in March 2006, always thinks from the perspective of being the Party in government. For we know that we cannot let the opposition mindset saddle us with irresponsibility and irrationality. We must constantly remind ourselves of the need to be constructive in our politics. Most importantly, Hong Kong’s political development has advanced to a stage where the people expect much more from the Opposition.
They expect us to show leadership and vision where the Government is blind.
They expect us to lead where the Government fails.
They expect us to take on the challenges of the 21st Century where the Government lacks foresight.
They expect us to bring forth and defend a free and open society where the Government is weak.
It is indeed a coincidence that the Hong Kong People comes to expect so much from the opposition parties in a system where the Opposition is supposed to be irrelevant and ineffective. This is not what the designer of our political system had in mind. But ironically, it is precisely because of the imperfections in our political system which brought about the best in the value of opposition in Hong Kong politics.
What next to watch in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong needs a fairer political system for minority rights to be better protected. Hong Kong needs a Chief Executive who has a clear mandate from the people and votes in the Legislative Council to build a city on a vision shared by all, expressed by a political consensus built through policy research, rational debates and popular advocacy. Hong Kong needs a legislature that deliberates for the best interest of its 7 million people, and not just to continue the political domination by the most powerful few who make their fortunes from land development and property investment.
The 2 Bills making laws for the 2012 Elections are now making their way through the Legislative Council. The Civic Party will try to introduce amendments to the Bills in order to make it fairer. Most importantly, we want to make sure about the laws, once passed, would be conducive to achieving the goal of truly democratic elections of the Chief Executive in 2017 and all members of the Legislative Council in 2020.
I shall be just too glad to keep you posted on democracy building in Hong Kong in these interesting times.
Hon Alan Leong SC
January 10, 2011