Democracy coming to the big screen

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2007, 12:00am

It was hailed as a milestone, albeit in symbolic terms, in Hong Kong's democracy journey. Never mind the result of the chief executive election was a foregone conclusion, the fact democrat candidate Alan Leong Kah-kit succeeded in challenging Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is a step forward.

That was made possible after Mr Leong secured the required minimum nominations - 100 - from the 800-member Election Committee to stand as a candidate.

But assuming Mr Leong got the same tally from a nominating committee in a universal suffrage election, there is fair possibility he might be eliminated even before the popular ballot.

This could happen if the nominating committee is allowed to vote for a shortlist of candidates to be put forward to the public.

Ironically, this could happen in the name of 'democratic procedures' as contained in the Basic Law's provision on universal suffrage. Article 45 of the Basic Law says the ultimate aim of constitutional development is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

On the face of it, to say the nominating body should name the candidates through democratic procedures is stating the obvious.

As Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen Hung-yee has pointed out, the existing nominating mechanism of the Election Committee already falls into line with 'democratic procedures'.

Under this arrangement, any candidate who has the minimum 100 nominations qualifies automatically, subject to the formality of confirmation by an independent election watchdog.

The notion of 'democratic procedures', however, has become increasingly muddled following the publication of a universal suffrage model by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Announced last week, the DAB proposes lowering the minimum number of nominations for chief executive candidates to 50. But all candidates should be subject to a process of 'confirmation' by the nominating committee through 'democratic procedures' which would draw up a shortlist of two to three candidates for voters to choose from.

This flies in the face of Mr Tsang's assurances Hong Kong's universal suffrage model will be fair, equal and in line with democratic elections generally practised in other democracies.

It is not difficult to understand the thinking behind the idea of turning the notion of 'democratic procedures' in Article 45 into a tool for screening out candidates Beijing might deem unacceptable - thus preventing the possibility of a constitutional crisis.

That sounds sensible, but only in theory. In practice, the political fallout is equally, if not more, damaging. Even if the nominating committee is democratically constituted, the idea of screening out candidates from a popular vote is bound to trigger criticism of false democracy and unequal electoral rights.

Take the example of Mr Leong, who represents the pan-democratic camp that got more than 60 per cent of votes in geographical polls. A political crisis would be likely at the nominating stage if Mr Leong was prevented from entering the popular vote.

That would betray the purpose and meaning of universal suffrage, not to mention the divisive impact it would have on society in general.

After more than 20 years of bitter rows, Hongkongers are prepared to compromise on the timetable and details of a universal suffrage system. But any attempt to cheat in the name of democracy will backfire, and breed more distrust, making it more difficult for consensus on a solution.

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