Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

All we need to do now is agree about elections

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am

The ball is in our court. The central government has removed lingering doubts about the timetable for universal suffrage, confirming it will be introduced for elections in 2017 and 2020 so long as Hong Kong can reach a consensus. Now every effort must be made to put in place reforms which bring us closer to that goal.

Five years ago we missed a chance to make our political system marginally more democratic. Modest government proposals were voted down by disillusioned democrats. As a result, no progress was made. Now we find ourselves in a similar position. Moderate plans for change in 2012 were put forward by the government yesterday. They don't meet the aspirations of democrat lawmakers and another deadlock looms. But we cannot let the opportunity pass us by again. Everyone involved has a duty to work out a deal that will receive the necessary two-thirds support in the Legislative Council. No one gains anything from another stalemate.

The government issued its proposals following a three-month public consultation during which it received 1.6 million signatures and 47,200 written submissions. Opinion polls were considered and forums held. But the result is a plan which differs little from the one put forward in November. Indeed, it is not much more democratic than the one rejected in 2005. It is disappointing officials did not feel able to make any significant changes.

A number of options were open to them. The outdated, opaque system of corporate voting could have been scrapped. The ban on the chief executive belonging to a political party could have been lifted. The unpopular practice of having the government appoint many district councillors could have been phased out. But all that is promised on these issues is more talk. What we are left with is an increase in the size of the Election Committee which votes for the chief executive and the creation of 10 extra Legislative Council seats. The significantly increased role for elected district councillors would make the arrangements somewhat more democratic; they would elect five new functional constituency lawmakers from among themselves and 75 of them would sit on the Election Committee.

One question left unanswered in the original proposals was how the district councils functional constituency seats would be filled. It is good to see that the government has now made it clear they will be elected by proportional representation. The big stumbling blocks for the democrats, however, are a road map to universal suffrage and a promise to scrap functional constituencies. These will not be forthcoming. The government correctly points out that there are diverse opinions on the future of functional constituencies. It says discussions must continue and has left the matter for the next administration. At some point, however, the differences of opinion must be resolved. We cannot put off this crucial decision indefinitely.

Many views have been expressed during the consultation exercise. But if there one matter we can be sure of, it is that Hong Kong people want progress to be made. The democrats should not, therefore, be too quick to dismiss the government's proposals. On the other hand, officials must keep an open mind and be willing to put real compromises on the table. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to meet the democratic aspirations of most Hong Kong people. But it might move us closer to them.

This is a defining moment for Hong Kong. Beijing has opened the door to universal suffrage. It is up to us to find agreement among ourselves so we can cross the threshold.