Voters baffled in Hong Kong's bent election

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The Independent Online
EMILY LAU should be a shoo-in for Hong Kong's Legislative Council elections next month, the first under Chinese rule. She consistently tops political popularity polls, and was the biggest single vote-winner in the last elections, held in 1995. Yet she is now running under a new system which is extraordinarily complex and looks suspiciously as though it were devised to keep people like her out of office.

Even that, however, is not likely to be enough to defeat Ms Lau, who is enormously popular because she is enormously outspoken. "I feel a repugnance to the whole [election] system," she says, "but it's the only one we've got."

Introduced shortly after the transfer to Chinese rule, the new system divides voting for the legislature into three parts. Two-thirds of the seats will be chosen by tiny electorates, representing professional, business and pro-Peking groups totalling some 140,000 people. The rest of the population, with 1.8 million voters, gets the remaining third.

That consists of 20 seats, divided between five monster constituencies which break up the old strongholds of the democracy-supporting candidates. But the massive gerrymander does not stop there. A new proportional voting system has been introduced in which the popular candidates have to share their votes with the less popular, because the votes are redistributed once the most popular candidates have secured enough to gain one of three to five seats on offer in each constituency.

Confused? So is practically everyone in Hong Kong. The bizarre mixture of special election committees, vote redistribution, constituencies so large that practically no one knows which one applies to their area and a refusal to allow political parties to put their names on the ballot paper has ensured that this could be the world's most convoluted election. The system is so complicated that the government has had to prepare a special video for those covering the election, in which the presenter solemnly assures viewers that proportional voting in Hong Kong is just like that in many other countries. She omits mention of all the variations which make Hong Kong's arrangements unique.

The beauty of the system, from the point of view of the government which devised it, is that it makes it impossible for those gaining the largest share of the popular vote to gain the largest number of seats. Polls strongly suggest that pro-democracy candidates should get around 60 per cent of the popular vote, if not more, but they will be lucky to win more than a quarter of the seats in the new legislature.

The government has festooned Hong Kong with posters proclaiming that the election will be "fair, open and honest". Tung Chee-hwa, the head of government, goes further, claiming Hong Kong is moving into a "more democratic" era. Yet, as Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party, has described it, this system was devised by the government because "they want certain results, then they work backwards to achieve it by changing the law".

Unfortunately for the government, most public interest in the election is shown among people annoyed that the administration is doing little to alleviate the hardships caused by the economic downturn. "They only listen to the big people," said Mrs Lam, a supermarket checkout operator. "Mr Tung does not care about people like me."

Mr Tung himself does not have to face the voters. There is a vague promise that the Chief Executive, or head of government, might be elected after 2007, and that even the legislature might move to election by universal suffrage by then. Mr Tung has indicated, though, that this might be too early for a change to full democracy.

The contradiction is not lost on the populace: while the government argues that Hong Kong lacks sufficient political maturity to cope with an elected government, it expects the territory to have no trouble understanding one of the world's most complicated election systems.