Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Lessons to learn from reforms fiasco

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2007, 12:00am

They may be the minority in Hong Kong's political structure, but the pan-democratic camp has proven to be an important player in constitutional reform.

An example of this is the role they played in the electoral reform of 2005.

Two years ago, the 25 pan-democratic legislators pulled together to block the passage of the 'district council model' initiated by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

As any electoral changes require a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council - 40 out of 60 - for their passage, the democrats vetoed the reforms and maintained the status quo.

Speaking to reporters after the publication of the green paper on universal suffrage on Wednesday, top government officials were at pains to stress they did not want history to repeat itself.

An official, who did not want to be named, said he hoped the political parties had learned a lesson from 2005 and would 'drop their political posturing and not insist on 2012 or nothing'. It is clear he was referring to the pan-democratic camp.

Insisting the government's 2005 blueprint had majority support in opinion polls, officials blamed the democrats for failure to make progress on democratic development.

Two years on, the debate about whether the democrats' veto was a wise decision still continues.

However, in a marked change of tactics - at least in their rhetoric - the democrats have already indicated their willingness to negotiate.

That will prove to be important to the outcome of the latest exercise.

It is also important for the government to learn a lesson from their 2005 failure.

Officials could continue to play the blame game - as they have since the reform fiasco - in order to put more pressure on the democrats to compromise.

It would, however, be more meaningful and pragmatic if they were willing to reflect on what they could, and should, have done in 2005 to come up with an offer the democrats could not refuse.

The government's 2005 package failed to win the support of the democrats on two key aspects.

First, the democrats could hardly accept an electoral package that gave marginal improvement in democratic participation, but not a clear timetable on universal suffrage.

Second, the democrats would have faced accusations of unprincipled compromise from their own supporters if they had accepted the proposal of allowing government-appointed district council members to form an electoral college to elect five legislators.

Although these five extra district council functional constituency seats would have meant an equal extra number of geographically constituency seats, the 'district council model' would in essence prolong the life span of the functional constituencies. That can hardly fit in with the ultimate aim of universal suffrage as stipulated in the Basic Law.

For the new constitutional reform exercise to succeed, it is vitally important the fundamentals of universal suffrage are adhered to in all major aspects.

For instance, any proposal on keeping the status quo for functional constituency elections would invite criticism of a breach of the principle of gradual and orderly progress towards universal suffrage.

Any plan on giving a nominating committee the right to screen out candidates before voters exercise their right to choose them would go against the spirit and substance of universal suffrage.

The issue of democracy boils down to a question of pace. If it becomes mired in dispute over dubious electoral models, a recurrence of the lose-lose situation of the 2005 reform drive cannot be ruled out.

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