Many Hong Kong people believe that elections will do nothing to resolve the existing political deadlock given that Beijing continues to intervene in all aspects of Hong Kong affairs.
The election of district councilors and lawmakers is just a symbolic gesture to allow Hong Kong people to exercise their civic duty. The fact is that the representatives they elect can do nothing to affect government policy, unless they voted for pro-Beijing candidates.
That is why the pro-democracy camp has been fighting for universal suffrage in Legislative Council elections. This is one way to boost their numbers and counter the influence of the pro-Beijing camp, which is mostly made up of functional constituencies.
In the geographical constituencies, the pan-democrats have won more than half of the popular vote in past elections, enough clout to give them veto power to block any government bill that requires two-thirds of lawmakers’ approval.
But now the pro-Beijing camp enjoys absolute majority after the High Court disqualified six pro-democracy lawmakers for improper oath-taking last year. A by-election is scheduled for March.
When more than half of the popular vote went to pro-democracy candidates showed that the government failed to win the support of the public. For that reason, the government and the pro-Beijing camp are working hard to win legitimacy and claim to be the real representatives of the people.
To begin with, the pro-Beijing camp has massive resources at its disposal to support its community groundwork such as giving away free rice and other foodstuff to the grassroots in exchange for their personal particulars in order to register them as voters.
These are the same resources that allow establishment candidates to transport voters to specific polling stations and to vote for specific candidates (the candidate’s number would be printed on their palm to remind them).
Still, the pro-Beijing camp struggled to secure votes in the geographical constituencies and would have been hard-pressed to ram legislation through had it not been for the disqualification of the six pro-democracy lawmakers.
It’s not surprising that the government has launched a public consultation at this time on changes to the electoral arrangements.
One of the most controversial issues is the opening hours of polling stations. The government said it welcomes views from the public but the fact is it openly favors a shorter voting period to bolster its winning chances by preventing any rush of votes for the opposition at the last minute.
At present, the opening hours of voting is 15 hours from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. This practice has been inherited from the British. The vote count runs through the night until noon the next day. The government’s excuse for slashing the voting hours is that the process is too long and tiring.
Some observers say the real reason is to avoid exit polls and projections during the final hours of the election.
In the last Legco election in September, supporters of the opposition camp rushed to designated polling stations to cast their votes, helping vulnerable candidates. Thus, government’s proposal to shorten voting hours is a tactic to counter the opposition’s strategy.
Another controversial suggestion relates to the use of online media. In previous elections, all candidates were required to declare their usage and expenses on social media, including comments made on their pages.
The government wants to ease the requirement by introducing a targeted exemption to protect third parties who are merely expressing their views from inadvertently breaching election laws. While candidates may still face tight rules on the use of social media, they can rely on external forces to promote themselves in the virtual world.
Some analysts said such arrangement could be difficult to implement as it is quite difficult to define “third party”. For instance a candidate can get friends to write their comments or share their status on social media praising the candidate. Some key opinion leaders can also use the loophole to write “advertorials” to promote a candidate.
Such articles could go viral on social media and also catch on in the traditional media without any regulation. That said, the more third parties a candidate can use, the more free promotion the candidate can enjoy. It seems that the proposal was designed to give the pro-Beijing camp an advantage.
We will know soon enough if these changes are fair.
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