El Al Wields Unlikely Political Clout In, of All Places, Hong Kong

Israel's national airline joins two dozen or so businesses in eligibility to vote in Sunday's legislative poll in the former British colony now controlled by China.

An El Al plane on the tarmac at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Daniel Bar-On

What does El Al have in common with a Hong Kong biscuit maker and a bedding chain?

They are all eligible to vote in Sunday's Hong Kong legislative council elections, the first major poll the territory has held since pro-democracy protests erupted in 2014.

The election is one of Hong Kong's most contentious ever, with a push for independence among disaffected younger voters stoking tension with China, the territory's overseer since 1997.

In the contest, Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition is vying to keep a one-third veto bloc against pro-Beijing rivals in the 70-seat council.

An odd aside in the balloting is the fact that not only are the territory's citizens entitled to vote, but about two dozen foreign agencies and companies, too. El Al is one of them, Quartz reports.

Under Hong Kong law, about half  the chamber's seats are chosen by individual and corporate votes organized by industry. El Al is one of about half a dozen foreign airlines entitled to vote, joined by more than a dozen other businesses.

“The colonial regime used to co-opt the business elite through the functional constituencies, which allowed them to get a seat in Legco,” Ma Ngok, a professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kon told Quartz.

The practice provides China with a buffer from pro-democracy legislators, hence it has not been amended, Ma tells the web site blog.

The system continues to serve a purpose for Beijing, Ma added, by protecting the Beijing-leaning business sector’s interests.

“The Chinese government sees [the functional constituencies] as an important buffer between itself and the pro-democracy legislators returned by universal suffrage,” Ma said.

Gladys Li, a senior lawyer in Hong Kong, calls the system "an absolute evil, a corrupt bad system bursting with discrimination.”

“[It is] such a bad system that some allow foreign companies to actually take part in Hong Kong elections, regardless of nationality requirements.”