Harbour View: Democracy, give it a try!

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Our democratic parties are structured like old Communist parties and for the same reason: fear. Until they become democratic, they won’t learn how to be strong enough to take real control through genuinely democratic means.

Many Hong Kongers have democratic aspirations. The proliferation of political parties advocating democracies is indicative of popular support.  However, parties that demand democracy don’t seem to give people much of a chance to practice it with them.

Support for democracy implies certain beliefs.  It implies not only a conviction in the morality of the will of the masses, but also the effectiveness of the process   No right minds argue for anarchy by election.  Democracy may be messy, unpredictable and make mistakes from time to time.  However, the argument is that it produces superior results in the long run.

Our political parties may wish to consider trying it.  Harbour Times launches a new series today examining how our political parties are structured and if their structure supports their aims.  It seems our parties participate in democratic elections and often advocate more democracy in our governance, but have as of yet to make their own processes more democratic.


Are we doing it wrong?

Structures of our parties in Hong Kong seem odd by democratic standards in other countries.  Structures here normally see power concentrated the hands of a few, usually a select committee of party elders.  Memberships are multi-tier, with newcomers having to prove their loyalty before being allowed to become members with full voting rights.  Most have to be approved by their central or executive committee – a type of screening process.  Some demand that members are not members of other parties.

These practices seem to reflect local concerns.  Paranoia may be too strong a word, but one concern is infiltration by unfriendly forces.  Open processes can be hijacked by outsiders or fanatic insiders.  Party leaders have impulses to control the party’s membership and ensure only ‘suitable’ candidates are chosen.  Suitability is shown through right thinking and loyalty to the party.  A desire for orderly progression is revealed through many of the safeguards. Succession planning means appointing coveted posts and nominations to worthy candidates so they can practice governance, prove their loyalty over time and show their discretion.

If the idea behind democracy is that voting and standing for posts should be open to all, this seems to be a strange way to go about it.   In more established democracies, political posts at local, regional and national levels are open to all members of most parties.  Barriers to entry for membership are truly minimal – usually a nominal fee and a signature.  This entitles members to full membership with rights to vote on policy, internal posts, and for which candidates will stand in public elections.

Run-ups to elections feature candidates, for internal posts and those hoping to stand in elections, gearing up mini-campaign machines to sign up new party members.  Thousands can be signed up in even small campaigns, many showing up to vote once only.


Democracy may be messy, unpredictable and make mistakes from time to time.  However, the argument is that it produces superior results in the long run. Our political parties may wish to consider trying it.


It gets real. Real open.

These campaigns serve a wide range of functions that Hong Kong political parties struggle with.

They develop and test the candidates’ abilities to execute on political expertise – campaigning, formulating policy and delivering the vote.  They swell party membership ranks and coffers.  Parties have a mechanism and better resources for developing their upcoming members.  As the whole party gets better at campaigning, they win more elections creating more opportunities for newcomers to rise.

Even losers feel like they have had a chance to have their say through voting.  They can see where there vote mattered in influencing policy or increasing the clout of strong second place candidates.  They have the reassurance that they will have another chance to have their say, and perhaps win, next time.  They are less likely to feel the need to quit the party and form their own splinter group.

Casual members recruited to support a particular person or issue may drift away after their initial purpose has been served.  But if a party does its job properly, many won’t.  Now on the database rolls, they can be contacted, wooed, and tapped for donations and votes.

If they aren’t ‘inner core’ devoted members, nothing has been lost.  A lot of upside has been gained.


Open is Messy and Imperfect

That is not to say that is clear sailing when parties open up.  There are coups, unsuitable candidates do end up representing parties and  conundrums do arise.  However, the arguments that hold true for democracy in society hold true for democracy in parties.

Parties who have a core of strong membership surrounded by those members who only show up on voting day are reflective of society.  Those deeply involved in politics (like readers of Harbour TImes) think everyone should be like them – obsessed with politics – but they aren’t.  Most people follow a couple of pet issues until a couple of months before an election, then pay more attention, then vote.  Parties in other places do have spikes in membership around elections as hopeful nominees bring people in.

People do show up for party elections on the deadline with their nomination form and a large sign-up sheet of new member applications to try and ambush opponents or incumbents.  While often discomfiting to the local inner circle, it can re-invigorate a party with newly interested members and cash.  The ambitious climber then has to actually produce those members on voting day – proving their support and ability to organise.  They can force incumbents to shake off their torpor, whether it be in campaigning or policy formulation – all for the good of the party.  Succession happens without (as much) succession planning.


The first party that overhauls its operations and allows many more people to join and have genuine engagement – votes over consultation – will have a huge advantage over its competitors.


Democracy, like markets, corrects itself over time

One of the elements that makes democracy so effective is the chance to correct mistakes.  The same holds true for political parties.  Perhaps Hong Kong could have a higher level discussion about how to screen Chief Executive candidates if our political parties had already grappled with how to be democratic while protecting themselves from hijackings and extremist leadership.  The current and most common practice in parties is to centralise decision making in a small group of safe hands.   This is hardly the model they are fighting for.

Parties in other  places still have fundamental principles that members are expected to adhere to.  Parties can choose protections for ‘chosen’ groups like women and youth – just like constitutional democracies.

Parties learn how to screen out extremists through experience.  Crazy people may take over an open party – but it is unlikely.  Most members are invited to join by other members. Splintering of parties happens rarely as disputes are usually negotiable through internal elections.  In Hong Kong, a dispute on dogma leaves dissenters no hope of accommodation so fragmentation is rife.

Even in very open parties, nuclear options to disqualify completely inappropriate candidates or policies do exist and are normally held in reserve and used only sparingly.

Parties do change and create structures to manage that change.  This  lends to continuity – both through evolution and through rebirth, the latter usually after electoral disaster.


Let a thousand models bloom – but only a few dominate

There are many ways that our political parties could open up.  They would have to learn to respond to the challenges described in this piece.  But that is the essential challenge for those who would reform Hong Kong’s governance.  How do we create a society that allows dissent and is still harmonious?  How can we be open and innovative, but not be hijacked by extremists?  How can we have people intelligently engaged and genuinely committed when it matters and avoid having them feeling disgruntled and disenfranchised?

The current lack of regulations is a seen as a problem for some.  However, HT believes it is an opportunity.  The first party that  overhauls its operations and allows many more people to join and have genuine engagement – votes over consultation – will have a huge advantage over its competitors.  Competitive candidates will emerge, many people will craft and buy in to its policies, and its member and voter base will grow rapidly in Hong Kong.

Such a party will face challenges.  But a party that competently manages those challenges will be the one best positioned to managed the challenges of reforming Hong Kong’s political system – having already mastered those challenges internally.

If a party wants to win the democratic game in Hong Kong, it had better practice it first.