Hong Kong - Asia's third-world city

SCMP May 3

Looking around at fellow Asian societies, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his masters in Beijing have every reason to fear elections. The recent spate in the region has shown that even the poorest, least-educated electors know what to do with the incompetent, the sleazy and the self-serving.
Clearly, the Hong Kong system of rule by a cabal of business oligarchs and overpaid bureaucrats, and Beijing's mix of communist authoritarianism with high-level corruption reminiscent of the Marcos and Suharto administrations, would be hard-pressed to survive real choice and exposure to open systems.

Let us look at the recent record. Indonesians gave a deserved thumbs down to President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and made it unlikely that she can survive the presidential polls. The race will almost certainly consist of two elections. Unless one candidate gets 50 per cent in the July vote, the top two will have a run-off in September.

The electors quite correctly recognised that she was a lazy and incompetent leader who (like Mr Tung) had no experience to fit her for the job, and relied on her name - just as Mr Tung has relied on anointment by Beijing. But voters did not turn back to the Suharto past. Golkar, the party of Suharto's elite, polled less than in 1999. Instead, voters boosted a grassroots, notably uncorrupt Islamic party - the Prosperous Justice Party - and the party of former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had been one of Ms Megawati's few ministers with a reputation for competence and honesty.

There remains a possibility that Indonesia's first direct presidential election will see a return to the past in the form of Suharto's former army chief Wiranto. But even his choice as Golkar's candidate was the result of a broad-based party vote, not the outcome of secretive insider deals.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, voters handed a record victory to new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the hope that he would continue the clean government drive with which he began his term in office.

It was also notable that the main opposition Islamic party, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia, was trounced not just because it offered a religious agenda too extreme for the majority of Malays. It polled especially badly in local polls in the states in which it held power. It was judged for its performance in government as much as its ideology.

All parties in Malaysia now acknowledge that although race and religion are constants in national politics, voter swings are mainly about perception of performance. That is as it should be everywhere - but is so conspicuous by its absence in Hong Kong.

Likewise in India, whatever the actual result of the election now going on, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party recognised that a return to power could not be achieved through emphasis on its Hindu ideology. Its key campaign argument has to be its claims to success in economic management.

Even the Philippines' showbiz-addicted electorate looks likely to select the least incompetent of the candidates put forward by the elite - Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

South Korea has offered another example of the good sense of electors. The pettiness of elected politicians and the machination of party politics had given South Korean democracy a bad name. All were guilty to some extent of electoral illegalities and dubious fund-raising from business.

The directly elected president, Roh Moo-hyun, was impeached on spurious grounds by an opposition-dominated legislature. The popular response: fury at the legislators' behaviour and a stunning defeat for the parties which had engineered the impeachment. South Korean politics has been messy, but society is a lot healthier than in the days of chaebol-military thuggery. And the economy in democratic South Korea is just as dynamic as it was in authoritarian times.

As for the Taiwan election, it was no laughing matter. The close vote was a reflection of concerns about the cross-straits policies of President Chen Shui-bian, mixed with a lack of enthusiasm for the personalities and competence of the Lien Chan-James Soong Chu-yu coalition. The electorate was right on both counts. It will also be right - as Ma Ying-jeou, a vice-chairman of the Kuomintang, at least recognises - to reject the "pan-blue" camp again if it persists in sore-loser street politics. The reality in Taiwan is that the middle of the road dominates voting even if it does not always dominate the political discourse. That is the norm in educated democratic societies.

While rich and poor in Asia get a chance to determine change, in Hong Kong Mr Tung and his coalition of cronies stagger on, distrusted both by the people and by a Beijing which is all too aware of its incompetence but all too incapable of admitting error. Their best friends are found among the patriotic triads of the entertainment industry and rural sector - organised crime and the Communist Party both thrive on secrecy and weak legal systems.






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