Letter to Hong Kong – Ruling Coalition?

RTHK Radio3   2007-05-06

With the re-election of Mr Donald Tsang rubber-stamped by the Election Committee in March, the guessing game about the Chief Executive ‘ s new ruling team is heating up. Rumour has it that a lawmaker of the Democratic Party has been approached to serve on the Executive Council (ExCo).

Some pundits consider the ExCo offer a political gesture of Mr Tsang to boost his popularity by showing he is willing to engage the dissidents in his inner-cabinet. He has nothing to lose no matter the democrats accept his offer or not. Others speculate that it is the Chief Executive’ s “ divide and conquer ” tactic to break up the pan-democratic camp. This conspiracy theory becomes more appealing after Mr Alan Leong of the Civic Party, Mr Tsang ‘s opponent in the Chief Executive contest, was recently kicked off the Urban Renewal Authority board.
You will be disappointed if you expect I have some insider stories to tell. Like you, I learnt this story only from newspaper reports. Instead of finding out what happened behind the scenes, I am more interested in asking in what way the appointment of lawmakers to the Exco will contribute to a healthy executive-legislative relationship and hence improve Hong Kong ‘ s governance.
It is widely accepted that Hong Kong ‘ s political impasse after the handover is attributable, in part at least, to the tense relations between the executive authorities and the Legislative Council (LegCo). The smooth functioning of government is dependent on majority support in the legislature. The Administration frequently complains proper government business has been obstructed by fierce legislative opposition. Government officials thus try every means to bypass LegCo scrutiny in order to avoid “ begging votes ” from lawmakers. Legislators and political parties, on the other hand, protest that they have no part to play in policymaking. Their only means to influence government policies is vetoing or threatening to veto government proposals. The confrontation between the executive and the legislature has resulted in a political game in which all players are losers.
To break the present gridlock, the Chief Executive has two options. The first, and easier, one is: the executive may secure majorities in the legislature by entering into ad hoc alliances with different political parties on different policy issues; that is what the last Governor Chris Patten did before the handover. Mr Tsang has apparently adopted the same approach. His team ‘ s handling of Tamar Development Project is a vivid example.
Broadening the political spectrum of the ExCo by co-opting the democrats will certainly enlarge the pool of Mr Tsang ‘ s possible allies, expand his room of maneuver in entering into ad hoc alliances, and increase his chance of securing majorities in the LegCo. This strategy allows the Chief Executive make the most of the fragmentation within the legislature.
This approach has two obvious drawbacks however. Without a stable alliance, there are chances that the Administration has to make big concessions to a small number of independents in order to win their critical votes. This gives the independents or smaller parties powers or influences out of proportion. And more importantly, the Chief Executive may find it impossible to secure majority support on some unpopular but necessary policy initiatives, tax reform and healthcare financing for example. Partly because of this, Mr Tsang has deliberately avoided addressing controversial issues since he assumed the office of Chief Executive two years ago. Should this avoidance continue in his second term, Hong Kong ‘ s long-term interests could be seriously compromised.
The second and better option for the executive to secure majorities in the legislature is forming a (relatively) stable ruling coalition through some forms of power and responsibility sharing with major political parties. Liberal Party leader Mr James Tien is the strongest advocate for this option. He stresses that coalition partners should have a greater role in the government ‘ s policymaking process, and adds that his party will not join the ExCo unless the Administration promises to duly consult them before policies are made.
Given the track records of the Liberal Party, people have legitimate reasons to doubt what Mr Tien and his party want are the powers to veto any policy proposals that may affect the immediate interests of their constituencies, and opportunities to extort favours in exchange for their votes in the LegCo. Putting aside the intention of the Liberal Party, the major deficiency of Mr Tien’s proposal is its failure to laying out a set of principles and constitutional conventions governing the formation of ruling coalition as well as the powers and responsibilities of coalition partners. Such principles and conventions should be fair and acceptable to all political players (including parties outside the coalition), and conducive to a legitimate and effective governance. And I think the delineation of these principles and conventions is an area where the pan-democratic camp could make a significant contribution. Here are some of my initial thoughts:
First, the Chief Executive should by convention invite lawmakers of the party winning most popular votes to serve on his or her ExCo. Under existing electoral arrangements of the LegCo, it is very likely that no single party could win more than half of the seats. In this event, the Chief Executive may, after consulting the winning party, invite other parties or independents to join the coalition to secure a safe majority. This convention is fair, and could reduce the chance of under-the-table deals and enhance the coalition ‘ s legitimacy.
Second, Mr Tsang ‘ s selection criteria that only those people who support his election pledges in full would be appointed to his ExCo is nonstarter. He could only recruit yes-men or women to his team if he really means it. Instead, the Chief Executive and coalition partners should draw up a common programme outlining their philosophies, visions, policy orientations and major initiatives. Given the Chief Executive and the legislature are returned by very different constituencies, there may be issues on which they have to agree to disagree. For the ruling coalition to be meaningful, coalition partners should try their very best to keep the unresolved differences to a minimum, and pledge to reaching a consensus or compromise in future.
Third, coalition parties should pledge their support to the executive authorities. Not only should they cast their votes for policy initiatives, government bills and financial proposals put forward by the Administration, lawmakers of the coalition should also actively participate in parliamentary debates, defending government position, countering the opposition and enlisting support among the community. In order not to undermine the watchdog role and function of the legislature, coalition parties should not be required to toe government line in the Public Accounts Committee and other select committees investigating the wrongdoings of the Administration.
I understand principles and conventions governing the appointments of lawmakers to the ExCo outlined above are still raw, but I believe they are the way out of Hong Kong’s persistent executive-legislature gridlock. The remaining question is: does Mr Tsang have the courage to take up the issue, and the willingness to share his powers with the legislature?