In Sunday’s Legislative Council election, there are three magic numbers that voters should be aware of: 18, 24 and 36.

Perhaps these are more for the voters who are planning to vote for the pan-democratic camp, the localists, or the ones promoting self-determination or independence for Hong Kong – those who are likely to be the minority in the legislature. But the three numbers also work for all political camps.

What are 18, 24 and 36? They are the number of seats needed for any camp to have a meaningful veto power in the 70-seat LegCo chamber.

legislative council
File photo: HKFP.

Every registered voter can vote in the 35 geographical constituencies. If voters are not registered to any functional constituency for specific occupations, they are automatically also assigned a vote in the five-seat district council (second) constituency – commonly known as “super seats.” In total, there are 35 functional constituency seats.

In the 2012 LegCo election, the pan-democratic camp held 27 seats: 18 in geographical constituencies and nine in functional constituencies. The pro-Beijing camp held 43 seats: 17 in geographical constituencies and 26 in functional constituencies.

Why 18?

Any camp with 18 lawmakers in the geographical constituencies can reject motions, bills and amendments to government bills proposed by fellow lawmakers.

Approval for any of these requires a majority in both the geographical constituencies and the functional constituencies. In other words, a majority in either one can successfully reject the moves.

legco explainer
Photo: HKFP remix.

For instance, efforts to amend LegCo’s rules of procedure to hamper filibustering were doomed to fail after the last election, because the pan-democratic camp held 18 geographical seats, enough to veto changes to the frequency and time that lawmakers were allowed to speak.

When former lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah resigned last year and triggered a by-election in February, making the count of pan-democratic and pro-Beijing camp lawmakers in the geographical constituencies a 17-17 tie, the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu used “defend the key seat” in his campaign, saying that pan-democrats must maintain 18 seats. He ultimately won.

However, 18 lawmakers is not enough to reject bills and motions proposed by the government, which only require a simple majority from the 70 lawmakers.

The notable case is the legislation called for in Article 23 of the Basic Law, or the national security law, which the government can pass with the support of the majority of the pro-Beijing camp at any time.

The controversial legislation failed in 2003 due to public pressure and a resignation from the Executive Council. The government has chosen not to raise the issue again since then.

Why 24?

For some issues, approval from a super-majority of lawmakers – two-thirds or 47 of the 70 – is required.

A notable example is the reform of Hong Kong’s political structure. Last year, a reform package proposed by the government – which stated that Chief Executive candidates must first be vetted by a 1,200-member nomination committee before a popular vote – was rejected by the 27 pan-democratic camp lawmakers and medical sector lawmaker Leung Ka-lau.

Other moves also require a super-majority. According to Article 79 of the Basic Law, if a lawmaker is sentenced by a court to one month of imprisonment or more for a criminal offence committed within or outside Hong Kong, and a motion to relieve him or her of duties is passed by a two-thirds majority vote of the LegCo members present, the lawmaker will lose the seat.

If a lawmaker is censured for misbehaviour or breach of oath by a vote of two-thirds of the members of the Legislative Council present, the lawmaker will lose the seat.

Lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung was sentenced to two months of imprisonment in 2012 for a protest. He kept his seat as a motion to relieve him of his duties was rejected by 25 lawmakers.

Another example would be a motion to impeach the Chief Executive. It requires several steps by the LegCo, before ultimately needing support from a two-thirds majority to pass the motion. So 24 lawmakers could prevent it from being passed.

Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong with a props showing he was "jailed" by the new copyright bill. Photo: HKFP.
Former Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong with a props showing he was “jailed” by the new copyright bill. Photo: HKFP.
Why 36?

Article 75 of the Basic Law stipulates that: “The quorum for the meeting of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be not less than one half of all its members.”

In other words, 35 lawmakers must be present at a LegCo meeting to prevent a premature adjournment. If any camp has 36 lawmakers they can instantly cut short meetings debating controversial issues simply by not attending.

During the recent debate on the medical council reform bill and the controversial copyright bill – commonly known as “Internet Article 23” due to fears it may curb online freedoms – lawmakers have constantly called for headcounts to stall the debate, as a means to filibuster.

Although the pan-democratic lawmakers have only held 27 seats, during the past four years, 18 meetings were cut short due to inadequate attendance – because some of the 43-strong pro-Beijing camp were not present as well.

Ballots. File Photo: GovHK.
Strategic voting?

The geographical constituencies’ existing election system, a special version of party-list proportional representation, gives the advantage to small parties or candidates with marginal support.

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For instance, the Neo Democrat’s Gary Fan Kwok-wai won a seat in the nine-seat New Territories East in the 2012 election with the smallest proportion of votes – six per cent of the constituency’s votes, or 28,621 votes.

Every vote counts under the existing system.

The 2016 Legislative Council election is scheduled to be held on September 4. The full list of candidates running across districts and constituencies can be viewed here.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.