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November 30, 2000

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Hong Kong has a new voting system. Too bad no one understands it

By Law Siu-lan / HONG KONG

Creative counting : Proportional Representation explained. Sort of.

PUT A TICK IN THE CIRCLE. It is that simple. Or at least that is what Justice Woo Kwok-hing would like Hong Kong voters to believe. As the chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, Woo is the man charged with ensuring that the first post-handover Legislative Council poll is free and fair. Another part of his job is telling voters how to accurately mark their ballots on May 24. The world is watching this poll closely, and a healthy turnout would send the right signal. This explains the official television ads that have been running every half hour during prime time. Each one ends with an announcer saying: "Your tick makes the election tick!"

If only it were really that simple.

"Can someone tell me what proportional representation is?" asks immigration officer Yik Shuk-mei, referring to the new electoral system. "I have no idea how the seats will be allocated. Isn't that the key to this year's system?" A very good question - and one that has people baffled all over Hong Kong. In fact, Justice Woo doesn't even like to mention the term proportional representation. "I don't think voters need to know what it is about," he says.

Woo is supposedly the most qualified person to explain the system, but when even he avoids discussing the details, one can only wonder how complicated the process really is. This matters because voter confusion may cripple an already dismal turnout record (35.8% in 1995) and give conspiracy theorists a reason to argue that the electoral changes smack of political intrigue hatched in Beijing.

The current voting system has its genesis in the 1995 election. That poll used the old-fashioned first-past-the-post format; whoever polled highest won a seat. When the ballots had been counted, the pro-China Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong discovered that even though they commanded 40% of the total vote, they had only won two seats out of 20. Not only that, but some of the party's leading lights lost. True to its name, the DAB decided things could be done better, and party brass complained to the Beijing-appointed body that was handling the details for the first post-British legislature.

Here is where things get truly surreal. Two systems were floated - a "two-seat, one-vote" format (where both first and second-place finishers in a constituency would get a seat) and "proportional representation" (where the number of seats mirrors the percentage of votes). The DAB favored the former because it would have helped place more candidates; its people came a close second in several races. But Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa favored proportional representation. Not because it was necessarily the best system, but because it is one that is well-known to the international community (versions are used in New Zealand and Germany). Tung wanted to send a positive signal at a time when much of the planet was convinced Beijing was going to roll back democracy in Hong Kong.

So proportional representation it was. Well, sort of. "After Mr. Tung switched [formats]," says Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen, "we had only about six months to come up with the system." Or at least that is the official excuse. Suen's solution: "list voting" and "largest remainder formula." Bear with us, and we will try to explain.

List voting first. Voters choose not candidates but parties. In the constituency of Hong Kong Island, for example, eight parties are vying for four seats. On a voting list, each party ranks candidates in order of preference - the individual the party most wants to win goes at the top and so on. Voters may only vote for one list (or party). Hence spreading votes around is not allowed - choosing, say, three candidates from one party and a fourth from a different group.

Martin Lee Chu-ming, whose Democratic Party won 12 seats under the old system, has a jaundiced view of the new arrangement. "We have a system whose name was liked by Tung," he says, "with details tailor-made for the DAB."

If anything, the list system favors such large parties as Lee's Democrats and the DAB. This is because voters are more likely to choose a list with more candidates since it means having a say over more seats. Contenders like Christine Loh, one of the city's most popular politicians, is handicapped because her Citizens Party is fielding two candidates, including herself. "I'm working round the clock," says Loh, "and I'm still not sure to get a seat. The system is unfavorable to a small party like us."

Then comes the "largest remainder formula" or "proportional representation" part. Once the election is over, seat allocation begins. Essentially each party that gets more than 25% of the vote in a constituency gets one seat. The remaining seats go to those parties with the next highest percentage of votes. (For a fuller explanation see "Creative Counting" below.) "This formula is generally seen as a conservative counting method adopted by a government that does not want a certain party to become too powerful in a legislature," says Timothy Wong Ka-ying of the Chinese University.

Asked if she understands the system once it is explained, immigration officer Yik shrugs and says: "Can you repeat that?" She is not alone. Leung Yiu-chung, a union leader who is running in the New Territories West constituency, says none of the voters he meets on the campaign trail has a clue how the system works. Some ask how many ticks they can make.

Others do not realize that this year's constituencies are larger than they were in 1995. One day, Leung was campaigning on the island of Lantau, which has been included in his constituency for the first time. An old woman approached him and whispered: "You are in the wrong place."

So much for the direct elections. There are two other polls (theoretically that means some people can vote thrice, though the government has limited the lucky minority to two votes). Besides the 20 seats to be voted on directly, 30 will be returned by 28 professional groups - so-called functional constituencies - and 10 by an election committee. The latter has sparked controversy and yet more confusion.

On April 2, hand-picked voters, 32,630 of them, chose 800 people who will return 10 seats on May 24. Besides representatives from various economic and social sectors, the participants in this "small-circle" election include former members of the provisional legislature put in place by China after the handover, plus Hong Kong delegates to various mainland political bodies.

"This is a typical China-designed election," says Chinese University researcher Wong. (In fact, it is how Tung was chosen - except that only 400 people picked him as chief executive.)

"Small-circle elections by interested parties brew manipulation and unfairness," says Democratic Party whip Szeto Wah. "Both Britain and China are to blame. What we have now is a British-style, interest-laden system that is further tainted by the concept of democratic centralism of the Chinese Communist Party."

Clearly, many voters agree. When popular talk show host Albert Cheng joined the race for the 800-seat electorate, scores of listeners complained that a self-styled democracy fighter should not take part in elitist elections. Cheng withdrew.

In a complicated system, nothing perhaps is more murky than the case of John Tse Si-yin, deputy director of the Hospital Authority. Originally, Tse opted to run in the information technology functional constituency. (Reminder: 28 functional constituencies will elect 30 seats.) But Tse has British right of abode. Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, not more than 20% of the seats (12) can go to residents with foreign papers. The Tung administration achieved this in what can only be described as an arbitrary fashion - foreign nationals are only allowed to run in 12 functional constituencies, not including (for some reason) information technology. Not only did this disqualify Tse, but also foreign passport holders running in the direct elections.

But the Tse story does not end there. Before Tse withdrew from the information technology constituency, his opponent Edward Yung Kai-ning claimed that the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency (Xinhua) had warned him not to run so as to improve Tse's chances. Tse denies approaching Xinhua but when he went for a slot on the 800-member election committee he won an impressive 849 votes - most of them, say insiders, from pro-China voters.

All the apparent intrigue has given Hong Kong voters plenty to talk about. But that interest will not necessarily translate into ticks on ballots - nor an understanding of how this important election works.

In a recent Hong Kong University survey, 80% of the respondents admitted that they did not understand proportional representation. Of the 20% who thought they did, only 8.3% got it right. Home Affairs Secretary David Lan, who is responsible for promoting the election, hopes a recorded hotline is helping. He reckons "the most average of residents should understand after listening to it 10 times."

Another turn-off for voters is the fact that the legislative council plays primarily the role of watchdog and will only be in power for two years (thanks to the provisional legislature). And that brings us to the next poll in 2000. Guess what? The government is thinking of making it more voter-friendly. Everyone in Hong Kong would vote for that.


Of the 60 legislative seats, 20 will be directly elected. The rest will be indirectly returned - 30 by 28 professional groups and 10 by a committee of 800. While the indirect poll has long been controversial, it is the direct vote that is most confusing. This is how it works:

Under the new "proportional representation" system there are five constituencies with three to five seats apiece. In the four-seat constituency of Hong Kong Island, say, each party that wins 25% of the vote gets a seat. Assume the Democrats win 40%, the DAB 35%, the Citizens Party 17% and the Liberals 8%. The Democrats and DAB get a seat apiece in the first round of allocation because they each won over 25% of the vote. The last two seats go to those with the most remaining votes. After the first round, the Democrats have 15% left, the DAB 10%, the Citizens Party 17% and the Liberals 8%. Hence, the last two seats go to the Democrats and the Citizens Party.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

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Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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