22 July 2019
It is lamentably likely that the erosion of the HKSAR government’s autonomy will reach a new low under Carrie Lam. Photo: HKEJ
It is lamentably likely that the erosion of the HKSAR government’s autonomy will reach a new low under Carrie Lam. Photo: HKEJ

What’s the point of elections?

Dramatic election upsets have been occurring all over the place, most recently in Britain where an overconfident prime minister called a snap election in the hope of humiliating the opposition but ended up being humiliated herself.

In the United States practically all the smart money was on Hillary Clinton to become president but someone very different is now sitting in the White House.

Meanwhile, in France a sweeping presidential campaign victory, followed by equally impressive success in elections for the legislature, went to Emmanuel Macron, who did not even have a fully formed political party backing him at the outset of his campaign.

What these elections and others have shown is that voters are not to be taken for granted and that, when riled, they will take their revenge on politicians who think they can be taken for granted.

Of course, in Hong Kong polls are far more predictable, particularly when it comes to elections for the chief executive that are confined to a maximum of 1,200 voters, most of whom don’t even need to make up their own minds about the way they will vote. Moreover, there is no nonsense here insisting that the most popular candidate should win because widespread support counts for little in this kind of election.

Supporters of this system maintain that it produces a strong and predictable government, a claim that would be less absurd if past chief executive elections had produced a government that even vaguely resembled these sterling qualities.

However, what is predictable about the result of the last election is that it has produced a chief executive with very little in the way of a popular mandate, whose hands are more or less tied by the people who dictated the election result and who has very little leeway to do more or less anything without Beijing’s approval.

Because the system has become so damaged it is lamentably likely that the erosion of the HKSAR government’s autonomy will reach a new low under Carrie Lam.

There is little she can do about it, even assuming she was minded to assert her independence, because she entirely owes her position to the grey men in suits up North and has nothing in the way of an alternative support base.

But there is more to this because in a real election campaign candidates are brutally tested for their leadership abilities and these campaigns also place the credibility of a candidate’s policies under the spotlight.

Thus in Britain Theresa May was revealed to be far weaker than she appeared to be during the tiny internal election campaign she waged to become leader of her party.

In other words, the election system works and works precisely because it lays open options and produces tests that aspirant leaders cannot duck but will make them stronger if they win.

At this point some readers will be saying, how then do you explain why a buffoon, narcissist and all round bad guy like Donald Trump can win an election? The answer is, first, that he is very shrewd and, second, that he had a less than convincing opponent who gave every impression of believing that she was somehow entitled to the job, a sense of entitlement that alienated voters.

Trump is however truly vile in many ways but the beauty of the system is that voters will have another chance to deliver their verdict on his governance and, although nothing is certain, it’s a fair bet that the verdict will be devastating.

The Hong Kong system, however, has no self-correcting system. On the contrary, it is designed to learn nothing from mistakes, which explains why a bumbling, out-of-touch first chief executive was followed by a narrow-minded bureaucrat now standing trial for corruption and then replaced by an even more unpopular and incompetent leader who leaves office with record low levels of popular support.

How many more failed chief executives are required to make it clear that the system simply does not work.

Of course, all other systems have their problems, but as Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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