Electoral system change (kinda?) in Hong Kong

Generally speaking, the activities of the Chinese National People’s Congress don’t warrant any mention on this blog. However, this week the NPC has taken up the matter of Hong Kong’s electoral system: while Hong Kong is not a democracy, it does hold direct elections to a body of some influence.

Coverage of the changes has been somewhat vague and focused on external reaction to the proposals: this reflects the lack of concrete information available at this stage. However, a number of stories have provided more information on what the specific changes to the electoral system are going to look like.

At present, forty members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council are elected directly by voters in six multi-seat districts using closed party lists and the Hare quota with largest remainders. The remaining thirty members are elected in so-called “functional” constituencies, where the franchise is restricted to members of professional groups or industries (such as the insurance industry, or lawyers): these are generally single-seat districts.

A South China Morning Post article outlines one particular feature of this electoral reform: the expansion of the Legislative Council by adding about thirty members, elected by the “Election Committee”. This is a 1200-member (at present) body, elected mostly by members of the same sort of professional organisations and industries, which currently only elects the Chief Executive (the head of government). It is not entirely clear currently how this body would elect its 30 members. However, up until the 2000 election, this body elected six members of the Legislative Council. According to the legislation, these six seats were elected by the multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV). Given the small, elite nature of this electorate, it could be reasonably expected that there would be few obstacles to the pro-Beijing forces sweeping all of the seats allocated to this group.

This article (in Chinese, but Google Translate allows one to glean the key points) offers more detail on what this proposal means for the elected seats. That source suggests that the total number of elected seats will be cut in half, to just 20 (it also reports a higher number of Election Committee seats than the South China Morning Post, which reflects the absence of a concrete proposal) in a 90-member chamber.

Interestingly, however, it also suggests that the electoral system to choose these 20 members would be changed, to what the article refers to as the “dual-seat, single-vote” system. This appears to mean the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in 10 districts.

There is some precedent for this particular system. South Korea adopted SNTV with two-member districts in 1972 under the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee. The proposals also resemble, in certain ways, the electoral system used in Chile until the 2017 election, where the D’Hondt system with open party lists was used in two-member districts. Under that system, a party list with one Droop quota (33.3%+1) would be guaranteed half of the seats in a district, meaning that to be guaranteed a majority of seats in a district a list would need to win two-thirds of the vote. While the two-seat SNTV system in Hong Kong lacks the vote-pooling of the Chilean system, it means that a candidate with a Droop quota would be guaranteed to win one seat.

Since Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, the pan-democratic liberal parties have consistently won the most votes, although not by enough to overcome the pro-Beijing parties’ advantage in the functional constituencies. The new system will make the task of winning a substantial portion of seats in the Legislative Council even harder for the pan-democratic parties, given that if a single pro-Beijing candidate runs in a district and wins a third of the vote, they will be guaranteed a seat: repeated across Hong Kong, this will set a limit of half of the elected seats that the pan-democrats will be able to win. For the pan-democratic parties to win multiple seats, they will need to not only win a massive two-thirds of the vote in a district, but will need to be able to divide their vote evenly between two candidates. This is in a context of tightening political repression for pan-democratic candidates: indeed, a primary election the pan-democrats conducted in order to effectively manage their vote at the next election was declared illegal under new national security legislation.

Under the current LR-Hare system, the high quota has meant that parties generally do behave as though the system were SNTV: as such, vote division is not unusual. However, the changes to district magnitude will produce an electoral system that will likely provide a more systematic advantage to the pro-Beijing parties, making them a significant part of the architecture of repression being imposed.

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