We must make progress on political reforms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2009, 12:00am

The constitutional reform debate has often taken the form of a bitter political battle between pro-democracy forces and those loyal to Beijing. It has been portrayed by one camp as a grim fight for a fundamental human right and by the other as a potentially dangerous development that could undermine Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. These entrenched positions have resulted in little or no progress.

But there is another way of framing the debate, one that all reasonable Hongkongers should be able to agree on. Developing a more democratic system ought to be seen as a way of providing more efficient, effective and accountable governance.

Change is sorely needed. The 12 years of ups and downs since the handover have shown that the existing system simply does not work. The arrangements provided for by the Basic Law were out of date even when drafted two decades ago. They are not suited to the more politically active society that we live in today.

The law drafters envisaged an executive-led system - in other words, a strong government whose powers are, to a limited extent, checked by the Legislative Council. The reality, however, is that the executive has found it difficult to lead. It lacks the clear mandate that democratic elections would give it. The government also has no direct representation in Legco. The result is a reluctance to push ahead with any policy that attracts vocal opposition. Even simple plans that enjoy wide community support become bogged down in battles to win over minority interests. A series of U-turns and the shelving or delaying of controversial policies underlines the problem.

Legco, meanwhile, has the mandate from the electorate. But it is given no meaningful role in governance. Lawmakers are left with little choice but to act as an elected opposition. They have increasingly descended into the politics of protest. There is little co-ordination between the executive and the legislature - and opinion polls show the public lacks confidence in both.

This is not a healthy state of affairs. The public is also denied a real stake in the governance of our city. It cannot elect the government - or vote it out of office. People naturally turn to the only available means of registering their discontent - protests, legal actions and complaints aired through the media.

We are left with a dysfunctional and fragmented political system. It has led to inefficiency - in a city that prides itself on getting things done. Beijing has declared that universal suffrage can be introduced for the chief executive election in 2017 and for all lawmakers in 2020, which would fulfil the 'ultimate goal' promised in the Basic Law. We must make the most of this opportunity.

It would be naive to think that democratic elections will solve all Hong Kong's problems. But a government elected on a platform of policies would be able to implement them with greater confidence. Giving that government representation in Legco - and lawmakers a role in government - would help forge a much stronger relationship between the two institutions. Scrapping the law that bans the chief executive from belonging to a political party would be a good start.

There are already signs that the familiar battle lines are being drawn for the consultation later this year on reforms for the 2012 polls. Every effort must be made to avoid another deadlock and, this time, to make progress.

Hong Kong cannot afford to continue with a dysfunctional political system much longer.

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