How 'pocket it first' could bring the harm of false legitimacy

April 20, 2015 10:21
Beijing's proposal for Hong Kong's 2017 chief executive election must be opposed, says Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai (inset). Photo: AFP, Xinhua

The Hong Kong government, central authorities in Beijing, the pro-establishment camp and even some pan-democrats have recently been on a massive campaign to persuade the people of Hong Kong to "pocket it first" with regard to the electoral reform plan currently on the table.

Those who are against the proposal argue that any pre-screened candidate who is eventually elected the chief executive through one person one vote will have "false legitimacy". There are a lot of people out there who don’t know what "false legitimacy" means. In order to understand that, it is important to first explain the meaning "legitimacy".

Legitimacy refers to the status in which people generally believe the governance of a regime is appropriate, and they accept its governance on their own accord. A high degree of legitimacy enables a regime to press ahead with policy decisions and stay the course amid controversies or even in the face of fierce opposition, because it was elected through an open and fair election with a clear public mandate to govern in the name of the people.

In different times and different societies, legitimacy of the ruling regimes can come from different sources. For example, in ancient times, emperors often enjoyed legitimacy because of their royal bloodline. In today’s China, the Communist Party’s legitimacy, or the right to rule, to a large extent comes from the people's belief that the party can improve their lives and bring about economic prosperity for the country.

In Hong Kong, like any other modern society, it is generally believed that the chief executive can enjoy legitimacy only when he is elected through a fair and open election in which all eligible voters can cast their votes freely without any external manipulation.

The reason why our former chief executives all suffered from a lack of legitimacy is because they were all elected through small-circle elections. As a result, they and their administrations were unable to address the deep-rooted conflicts in our society with determination and conviction.

With the administration's built-in flaws, it often tended to back down once it faced severe opposition over policy issues. As a result, many pressing social issues were left unattended because the government tried to avoid extra troubles; hence the continued deterioration of our social conflicts.

If we really "pocket it first", then our next chief executive elected in 2017 will have false legitimacy at the start, because all candidates will be pre-screened by the nomination committee controlled by Beijing. Even though 5 million eligible voters can cast their votes, the election will remain not-genuine by nature.

To make matters worse, since the majority of the public might not fully comprehend the tricks in the pre-screening mechanism, they may be under the impression that their chief executive has actually been elected through a rightful election, and therefore has the right to rule.

On the other hand, a chief executive with false legitimacy can take advantage of his position of strength to push for policies that are against the interest of the general public. The leader can also suppress opposition with his false legitimacy, simply because the vast majority of the public don’t know the election is actually rigged right from the beginning.

Therefore, the so-called "pocket it first" reform package is not only a fake one, but also a deceiving one.

The pocket-it-first proposal is deceiving because firstly, although voters will have two to three candidates to choose from, since the candidates are all pre-screened by Beijing, it will not be surprising if the candidates will be closely similar in background. As a result, voters’ choices will be very limited in reality.

Secondly, the person who is eventually elected chief executive can claim to be a true representative of the Hong Kong people because he is actually elected by one person one vote, and many might just believe in him. The truth is, however, that voters don't have real choices, because all the candidates have already been chosen in advance.

Some argue that it is unfair to say it is a fake election, because after all, the entire Hong Kong electorate can cast their votes. That is in fact the biggest problem with the "pocket it first" proposal. It is as dangerous and deceiving as a high-quality counterfeit banknote, because even an expert might fail to spot it, let alone an average individual.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 17.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong