NPC makes it official: next chief will serve two years
Government sees authoritative ruling; to foes it's predictable, but still regrettable
The nation's top legislative panel ruled yesterday that Hong Kong's next chief executive will serve only the two years remaining of Tung Chee-hwa's term.
Critics who have said the National People's Congress Standing Committee's interpretation of the Basic Law would undermine the rule of law appeared to accept it with weary resignation.
There was little of the public anger with which earlier interpretations covering the right of abode and electoral reform were greeted.
The government's response was equally low-key. In a statement, it welcomed what it called 'the most authoritative and legally binding interpretation' on the new chief executive's term.
Until seven weeks ago, the government had held that Mr Tung's successor would serve five years.
The interpretation, endorsed by the Standing Committee's 154 members, contained no surprises.
It applies to the election of the next chief, but notes that after 2007, the method for selecting chief executives could be amended. It says that, if the method is amended, the term of a chief executive taking over mid-term from another shall be determined in accordance with the amended method.
NPC chairman Wu Bangguo said at the Standing Committee meeting that the interpretation was 'absolutely necessary and appropriate' to a smooth election of a new chief executive.
Explaining the rationale behind the interpretation, Li Fei , vice-chairman of the NPC's Legislative Affairs Commission, said the Basic Law provisions on electing the third-term chief executive state the election will take place in 2007.
He also noted that the Election Committee which chooses the chief executive only has a mandate to choose someone who can serve until the end of Mr Tung's term.
Mr Li said the lawmakers who issued the decision 'believe this interpretation is completely in line with the legislative intent of the Basic Law'.
The government opted not to hold a news conference following the issuing of the interpretation. Its statement said: 'It effectively settles the debate on the term of office [and] removes the uncertainties affecting the normal operation of the government and the community.'
Speaking before the interpretation was issued, acting Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - who is expected to win election as Mr Tung's successor in July - said the decision was to ensure a smooth election and the continuation of effective governance.
After the interpretation was issued, constitutional affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung said it had provided the constitutional basis for the government's bill to amend the Chief Executive Election Ordinance.
The law, as amended, would state that the next chief's term shall be the remainder of Mr Tung's. Mr Lam said the 'remainder term' arrangement would remain for as long as the chief executive was chosen by an election committee whose tenure was five years.
Independent legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, who has sought a judicial review of the decision to make the chief executive's term two years, said he would now consider withdrawing his challenge.
There was a muted reaction to the interpretation from opponents of the move. The Article 45 Concern Group issued a statement, but did not hold a news conference.
'That the interpretation is predictable does not make it less regrettable. We share the profound disappointment of those who had hoped that the Hong Kong judicial process would be left to follow its natural course without being effectively pre-empted by an interpretation,' its statement said.
Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat called the interpretation deeply regrettable, and feared there would be more interpretations.
University of Hong Kong law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, a member of the Basic Law Committee which advises the Standing Committee, called for a mechanism for future interpretations.