Universal suffrage

Make the most of an uninspiring reform plan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am

When Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen unveiled the government's package of electoral proposals for 2012, he said more than 47,200 written submissions had been received during the consultation period.

That shows how deeply Hongkongers care about political reform. Then it turned out that the vast majority of them - about 34,800 - addressed universal suffrage rather than the 2012 elections. Those views were set aside for future reference, so a lot of people put in a lot of effort basically for nothing.

One can't really blame Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. After all, Beijing made it clear he had no authority to deal with anything beyond 2012. But, if functional constituencies are to be phased out by the time universal suffrage elections for the entire legislature are held in 2020, the time to begin is now. Instead, the earliest Hong Kong can act will be in 2016.

Acting in 2012 would be more in line with the Basic Law's principle of gradual and orderly progress. Beijing has a record of considering all aspects of a situation before making a decision, so it must have a reason for deciding not to touch functional constituencies in 2012.

The logical step now is to find a way to accommodate Beijing and, at the same time, hold democratic elections. The best solution is a bicameral system in which the lower house is elected by universal suffrage and the upper house is chosen through functional constituencies.

The issue will be delimiting the powers of the two chambers. The lower house would clearly have much greater legitimacy and it should have much greater powers. The powers of the so-called upper house would need to be circumscribed so that the will of the people, as expressed through their elected representatives, would not be frustrated by special interests.

Low-key discussion of a bicameral system has been going on for some time. A great deal more thought needs to be put into it now.

In the meantime, we still have to deal with the 2012 elections. Since no reforms were instituted for the last set of elections, in 2007-08, it is desirable to see some changes for 2012.

The public has not been thrilled by the government's electoral proposals. Still, as in 2005, they do contain some positive elements, such as making the Election Committee bigger.

In 2005, the government proposed doubling the committee's membership from 800 to 1,600. Now, for some inexplicable reason, it wants to increase the number only to 1,200.

The government said that, in 2005, it wanted to 'enhance the democratic elements of the election as far as possible', but that the situation today is 'completely different' because a universal suffrage timetable exists now.

The logic is a little fuzzy: why should there be less need to enhance democratic elements with a timetable in place?

Another difference between today and 2005 is that, five years ago, the government insisted that appointed district councillors should be included in its plan to enlarge the Election Committee and the Legislative Council's constituency for district council members. Had the government done this in 2005, coupled with a timetable like the one in place today, that reform package would have passed easily.

However, passage of the current package is in doubt largely because of the functional seats. But that issue may well be finessed through a bicameral system.

Now both Beijing and the Hong Kong public need to be convinced that such a system is workable. In the meantime, the current reform package, though uninspiring, should be passed.

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