Sunday, December 02, 2007

Democracy Part VI: Elections, Representative Democracy and Hong Kong

Full, free and direct elections. That is the essence of legitimate expressions of the political will of the masses. Its absence stokes the flames of arguments touching on "democratic deficits" (especially in Europe) and fueled the elitist political movements of the early part of the 20th century in the United States that eventually produced the 17th Amendment and the direct election of Senators (freeing them from the influence of machine--that is immigrant--driven local politics). Who could possibly be against direct elections for representatives to legislative assemblies or for the executive holding the princely power (under constitutional constraints, of course).

There is, of course, a certain formalist fetishism to the notions so valued by Western thinkers and their media popularizers. The important thing, it seems is the direct connection between voter and representative. What is required is a voter, an election and a person running for office who might be elected. People tend to be less fussy about the mechanics of this legitimating process, especially the processes through which people stand for election. Appointed representatives are viewed as the antithesis of this system. Its representatives are suspect and presumptively non democratic in their relation to the masses and in their wielding of state power. But this focus on the photo opportunity aspects of voting, of direct elections for people standing for election, of the famous purple finger of the so-called Iraqi elections of January 2005, might mask more interesting features of such systems.

Those interesting features of full, free and direct elections was recently highlighted by one of the great institutional media proponents of the current fetishist formalist system of voter direct democracy.

The BBC recently reported on the difficulties of establishing a proper form of democracy in Hong Kong in accordance with its sense of appropriate mechanics. Democracy Champion Wins HK Poll, BBC News, Dec. 2, 2007. Without reference to the irony of its reportage, the story explains that
The pro-democracy candidate and former colonial official, Anson Chan, has won a key by-election in Hong Kong. Ms Chan came out of retirement to campaign for full democracy in an election that was being seen as a test of the political mood in the territory. Ms Chan wants the chief executive to be directly elected by 2012. The post is currently decided by a committee, many of whose appointees favour Beijing. Democracy Champion Wins HK, supra.
It seems that the representative government imposed under the transition arrangements between the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom do not go far enough to ensure democratic government. The former representative of the colonial power was thus quoted as assessing her electoral success on the following terms: "the result "indicates that Hong Kong people are anxious to put forward democracy... I'm sure that the [Hong Kong] government and [Beijing] government would wish to listen to the genuine voice of Hong Kong people." Democracy Champion Wins HK, supra.

The problem is not representation. The people of Hong Kong are well represented, at least in a formal sense. The problem lies in the power to choose these representatives. "Under the current rules, Hong Kong's chief executive is chosen by a panel of 800 appointees, many of whom heavily favour Beijing, and only half of the 60 members of the legislature are directly elected." Democracy Champion Wins HK, supra. This is not democracy. Even the Chinese Communist Party are said to admit this. "China's Communist Party pledged to introduce democratic rule in Hong Kong when they took back the territory from the British in 1997. But Beijing has been vague about the timing of full democracy." Democracy Champion Wins HK, supra.

And so that other great vehicle of popular democracy has been deployed: mass protests and demonstrations. See Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part IV, Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 25, 2007. As reported approvingly by the Western press, people have taken to the streets in a show of democratic action. " Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent years calling for the territory's chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage." Democracy Champion Wins HK, supra. They have also taken to the streets to protest other measures and actions of the government inspired by Beijing, including the notorious anti-subversion law of 2003. Id.

But, representation mat be more than a matter of the application of fetish forms. It also turns out that while one segment of Hong Kong society despises the current system for its illegitimate deployment of the forms of democratic organization. It turns out that the Hong Kong elite tend to support the Beijing approach to representative government and have supported candidates for office that are pledged to continue that approach.

Curiously, the same people who spill out on the streets to demand direct representative democracy, also manage to find themselves at the polls voting for the pro-Beijing candidates. Thus, "pro-democracy parties suffered heavy losses in district council elections, while Beijing-backed groups made huge gains. Analysts say the pro-Beijing parties benefited from a strong economy and good organisation at district level." Id. It appears that people may sacrifice a peculiar form of democratic organization for economic prosperity. It also appears that organization at a political level seems to substitute for individual choice and the deliberative part of deliberative democracy. How else to understand the emphasis on organization as a predicate for political action?

Thus the curiosity of fetish democracy. The value of direct elections is well known. Its catechism suggests its necessity to deepen the connection between the people and their representatives. That connection provides legitimacy (the sovereign elects), and accountability (the sovereign can replace). Where a representative or some other element of the community selects, then the authenticity of the democratic state is threatened. There can be little accountability and no direct means of legitimacy. Thus, a system where the people may not directly vote for their representatives--such as that in Hong Kong--is democratically deficient. And people are justified in taking to the streets to win the right to elect their representatives. But just what does direct democracy provide the electorate? In one sense it provides them the right to vote. To to vote for whom? The people who freely stand for election. But who are these people? They are those who are supported for the most part by a political faction, and who rise to factional power by a loyalty to that faction; perhaps that work also inures to the benefit of the populace (it is for them that such factions exist, at least in theory). But the choice--art least the choice that counts--appears to rest with the faction. For whom do the people vote? For those who have the support of the faction.

And thus direct democratic elections provide a cover for a system at at its limit resembles in large respect the system against which the people have been agitating against on the streets of Hong Kong. Voting does indeed provide legitimacy, but it fails to provide accountability. When one representative is voted out of office, she is replaced by another, representing the faction from which she is drawn. Thus, direct elections in factional systems reduce themselves to one that appears formally directly democratic but which functions as an aristocratic systems in which different factions compete, to some extent, for votes, but who control the individuals put up for that vote. Thus, the complaint of the residents of Hong Kong are both important and ironic. They seek the right to play factions off against each other, ultimately for the benefit. There is no such play when only one faction controls. . . . unless the controlling faction itself represents the diverse interests of all of the people.

Modern democracy is thus centered on the power to choose candidates. That choice is not made by the people in an election. In that respect the people play a secondary role; they approve by voting, but the basic choice of how among the many might they vote. Elections are not where "democracy" works. That vote is just the end product--a vote by a general electorate, is almost an afterthought. An important afterthought, to be sure, but nothing more. Democracy is exercised in intra party politics. Those politics may be based in part on the perceived desires of the electorate--but it is not the electorate that makes that choice in the first instance--it is made for them. The more media and political elites focus the electorate on their "right" to vote, the more tightly veiled the operative vectors of democracy as practiced in fact.

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