Bargaining time is slipping away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

A plate of bread-and-butter issues has dominated the city's agenda in the past few weeks, ranging from food safety, lifeguard labour disputes and bungling in English exam grading.

On the face of it, there appears to be some truth in the saying that summer is the 'silly season' in politics.

Beneath the surface of an unexciting political landscape, however, lies a bubbling row over the electoral arrangements for the next chief executive and Legislative Council elections in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Recently, the media has reported on various electoral options supposedly under government consideration. One common point is the creation of 10 extra seats in Legco - five each for the geographical and functional constituencies.

This is seen as the most practical and politically acceptable way to promote democracy, because revamping the existing geographical and functional constituency elections would be highly divisive.

The crux of the electoral reform game is, therefore, to work out a model acceptable to the pro-government, pro-Beijing camp and the moderates in the pan-democracy force.

Under such a plan, the idea of giving all five new functional seats to the District Council constituency has gained some credence.

Yet, in view of their insistence on full universal suffrage, it seems inconceivable that even moderate democrats would support an increase of the so-called 'small-circle' functional seats - regardless of where those seats would go. The idea also drew immediate flak from conservatives, who argued that giving more seats to district councillors would contravene the principle of functional constituency polls.

So, it would appear that these proposals have no chance of achieving a two-thirds majority in Legco.

Even if - and it is a big 'if' - the government was ready to be flexible over the principle of functional-based elections, the swift opposition from the conservatives served as a reminder of the tension over democratic development.

A case in point is the comments by Raymond Wu Wai-yung, a local member of the Basic Law Committee, who said it was not a bad idea to retain the present electoral systems. 'If Legco remains a body that causes more harm than good and wastes resources, is it a good thing to increase its membership?' he asked.

The emergence of sharply divisive views follows a series of meetings between Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and major political parties over the past few weeks. A taskforce led by Mr Hui is scheduled to publish the fifth report on constitutional development by the end of next month. Earlier, it was revealed that Mr Hui paid an unannounced visit to Beijing to meet key officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

The spate of developments has given rise to speculation that time is running out for bargaining before the government finalises its so-called mainstream proposal. Importantly, Mr Hui has reportedly said that there will only be limited room for change to the government scheme.

The pressure is therefore on the pan-democratic camp to drop its stance on full universal suffrage and come to the negotiating table to seek token democratic changes.

The seemingly intensive talk about electoral change contrasts sharply with the public's indifference and confusion. People's feelings of scepticism and alienation will deepen if the upcoming consultation exercise becomes merely cosmetic, with the results being determined by the tussle between Beijing and vested-interest groups.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large