Restore secret ballots for a fair election

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am

Although the candidates vying for the Legislative Council seat in the by-election scheduled for December 2 talk about education, minimum-wage legislation and other topics, universal suffrage remains very much the central issue.

At the Foreign Correspondents' Club last Wednesday, Anson Chan Fang On-sang zeroed in on her main rival, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, and said it was important for voters to be able to 'distinguish clearly between genuine and counterfeit democracy'.

Mrs Chan denounced as 'blatantly regressive' a proposal by Mrs Ip that calls for each candidate to receive at least 10 per cent of the votes from each of the four sectors of the future nominating committee.

She said that, if such a system had been applied to this year's chief executive election, 'Alan Leong [Kah-kit] would have failed to qualify' - he did not obtain a single nomination from the industrial, commercial and financial sector.

It is undeniable that pro-democracy candidates have an extremely difficult time winning support from business members of the Election Committee, and the composition of the future nominating committee is not expected to be much different. This is largely because these members do not want to be seen to be supporting candidates whom Beijing does not view favourably.

So, if Mrs Ip's proposal is adopted under the current system - where the law requires each member to disclose which candidate he is nominating - then such a requirement would truly become a mechanism for sifting out pro-democracy candidates.

But it doesn't have to be like this. After all, the procedure was quite different in 1996, when the first chief executive was chosen by the 400-member Selection Committee. That process involved two rounds of secret balloting, a nominating round and the election. In the nominating round, the 400 voters submitted their ballots in public view. Later, the name written on each ballot was read out and entered on a board, again in public view. A couple of weeks later, the process was repeated in the actual election.

However, this open process disappeared after the handover. Now, by law, secret ballots are not allowed in the nomination phase; Election Committee members must disclose their choice.

This results in tremendous political pressure on Election Committee members, who do not want to be seen to be supporting candidates not favoured by Beijing.

On Thursday, when it was Mrs Ip's turn to speak at the FCC, she defended her proposal by saying that Article 45 of the Basic Law refers to nomination by a 'broadly representative nominating committee' and that 'it follows that a nomination has to be made by the committee as a whole'.

It can certainly be argued that candidates would need support from all four sectors of the committee to ensure that it was 'broadly representative'.

However, Mrs Ip's proposal must be rejected, because nomination is not by secret ballot. If the system were restored, then such a proposal could be considered. Pro- democracy candidates may then get votes from the business sector, as no one would know who had nominated them.

When asked, at the FCC, about such a proposal, Mrs Ip said she supported secret ballot nominations. However, support is not enough. She has to campaign for it strenuously. In fact, nominations by secret ballot should be restored regardless of what other rules there may be in the process to choose the chief executive.

If Mrs Ip can get her supporters, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Liberal Party, to support nominations by secret ballot, there is a good chance the law can be changed. If she is serious about wanting her proposal adopted, Mrs Ip will have to include the restoration of nominations by secret ballot. There is no other way.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.