The right President
Members of the first full Legislative Council of the Special Administrative Region have a crucial decision to make at their inaugural meeting today. It may rank among the most important they take during their two-year term of office. It will certainly do much to determine how the new legislature is perceived by Hong Kong and the world.
The election of the President is about far more than simply who will chair its meetings. Whatever the precise constitutional position, the President serves in practice as a figurehead and a symbol for local and international communities of the nature of the Legislative Council and the direction in which it will develop over the coming two years.
This, alone, is a compelling argument for choosing a President from the ranks of the directly-elected members. No one can deny that it is they who represent the future of legislative politics in the SAR. For Legco to be seen as the first step towards the more democratic future which virtually every local political party claims to support, its President should have been democratically elected rather than returned by a small circle of a few hundred voters.
The Basic Law makes this clear with its reference to the ultimate goal of universal suffrage. Nor can there be any doubt that it is the directly-elected who lend Legco its credibility, and who represent the people of Hong Kong.
The President should understand the constitutional complexities involved. If the new body is to mark a clean break with the appointed provisional legislature, its President must be someone who did not hold a position of leadership in the now-disbanded council.
Its President must also be whole-heartedly committed to fulfilling Legco's constitutional role as a check on the extensive powers exercised by the administration under the executive-led system of government. That means a person who will seek to interpret the restrictions that the Basic Law imposes upon legislators, particularly over private members' bills, in a fashion which leaves maximum room to manoeuvre. This would contrast with the recurrent rulings in the provisional legislature on the side of restricting councillors.
It is for legislators to judge which of the two candidates best fits these criteria: Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai or Andrew Wong Wang-fat. Both have readily-examinable track records from their previous spells as President - Mrs Fan in the provisional legislature and Mr Wong in the pre-handover Legco.
The incoming councillors should clearly understand the importance of their choice. They stood for election because they want to exercise influence and represent their electorates.
If they make the wrong choice today, their ability to influence policy and represent their voters will be greatly diminished. The scope for the new legislature to act as a force for good during the next two years will be correspondingly diminished, to the disadvantage of the community as a whole and of the democratisation of the SAR.