The opposition has lost its sting. Will it lose its bite too?

December 21, 2017 10:00
Localist lawmaker Chu Hoi-dick was ordered out of the chamber following a protest last week over changes to Legco's Rules of Procedure. Photo: HKEJ

Last week, the opposition lost its sting. That happened when the establishment exploited a window of opportunity to force through Legislative Council rules changes that would limit the opposition’s use of delaying tactics to hinder the government's agenda.

Critics accused the establishment of dirty politics by pushing through rules changes at a time when the opposition had been weakened by the loss of six legislators who were disqualified for improper oath-taking. They said the vote on rules changes should have come after the March by-elections to fill the seats of four of the six disqualified opposition legislators. But politics is dirty. As the saying goes, all's fair in love and war.

Tactics such as filibustering and quorum calls gave opposition legislators a potent sting. They used this weapon regularly to delay government policies they opposed. Establishment camp legislators have now de-nuclearized this weapon. Do opposition legislators have a new game plan? Some, including Chu Hoi-dick, have threatened to take revenge by resorting to even more radical tactics.

If radical action is payback for the loss of its sting, how will the opposition react if it also loses its bite? That could happen in the March by-elections. Before the loss of its six seats, the so-called democracy camp had the veto power to vote down major government bills which require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

The opposition had this veto power because it controlled slightly more than one third of the seats in the 70-member legislature. It used this veto power to reject Beijing’s August 31 2014 political reform package, mocking it as fake democracy.

Some government bills require a majority vote in both the functional and geographical constituencies of Legco. Pan-democrats outnumbered the establishment camp in the geographical constituencies and were able to block such bills. They no longer have this majority in the geographical sector after the courts disqualified six opposition members. That’s why the establishment was able to rush though rules changes.

The opposition’s veto power and its majority in the geographical sector gave it a powerful bite to thwart government policies. Pan-democrats hope to regain its bite in the March by-elections. But what if they don’t win back all four seats? And what if they also eventually don’t win back the two remaining seats at a later by-election?

When you lose your tail as well as your head, you will lash out like a crazed animal. Most experts say it is extremely unlikely the opposition will lose all six seats. But nothing can be taken for granted in politics. Even Donald Trump didn’t expect to win the US presidential election. Hillary Clinton was certain she would win.

Polls show more than half of Hong Kong people are fed up with gridlock in Legco caused by filibustering. They want their legislators to do the job they are paid to do, which is to deal with livelihood and housing issues. Two of the six lost seats belonged to independence advocates Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang.

Most Hong Kong people know independence is impossible. Leading independence advocates, including Edward Leung Tin-kei and Ray Wong Toi-yeung, have been charged in connection with the Mong Kok riot. Wong has jumped bail and there is now a warrant for his arrest.

Will voters punish the opposition by electing six establishment camp candidates instead? Or will they punish the establishment camp for playing dirty politics by rushing through rules changes when the opposition was down by six seats? There is no way of knowing what the mood of voters would be like in March. Anything can happen in the coming three months to affect the public mood.

But if the unexpected happens and the opposition fails to regain its seats, it will lose the meaning of its existence. It has defined its role as a monitor of government policies and preventing Legco from being a rubber stamp. It did that through its veto power, its majority in the geographical sector, and delaying tactics such as filibustering.

Without all this, the opposition will be a toothless tiger unable to do its primary job of opposing. Many Hong Kong people will applaud such a scenario as a good thing because it will enable Legco to operate more smoothly. Filibustering, quorum calls, the throwing of bananas, and members being dragged out by security staff were unimaginable during colonial rule. That's why Legco meetings were boring but smooth. But many other Hong Kong people will see the lack of a strong and effective opposition voice in Legco as a further erosion of democracy.

It used to be said during British rule that even though Hong Kong and Legco lacked democracy, our unelected governors were still answerable to a democratic ruler. Many Hong Kong people know our indirectly-elected chief executives are answerable to a communist ruler. They may feel that Legco too will be answerable to a communist ruler if its opposition loses all its weapons.

As I have said before, Hong Kong's highly-politicized population has outlived the current political system. The opposition will most likely win back most if not all of its six seats, thereby re-gaining its veto power even though delaying tactics will become much harder due to rules changes. But that will still only take us back to square one, possibly even worse.

Rules changes have made bad blood run even deeper between the opposition and establishment camps. With veto power back in its hands, the opposition could take revenge by making life even more uncomfortable for the government and the establishment without having to worry about a public backlash because winning back its lost seats means it has a fresh mandate.

We desperately need a new political system that can truly represent the aspirations of society. The opposition shot itself in the foot by vetoing Beijing's political reform framework. It was at least a half-full glass that would have led to a fully-democratized legislature. If the system worked well, the glass could have become three-quarters full.

But now we have to live with the current unworkable system indefinitely. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's mantra is that reforms can only be put back on the table when the political atmosphere becomes more suitable. I can't see that happening anytime soon.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Cheung Chiu-hung and Shiu Ka-chun were among the pan-democrats who staged protests during a debate on Legco meeting rule changes. Photo: HKEJ

A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.