Think outside the box

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am

This newspaper rightly asked in last Saturday's editorial: 'If Britain's politicians can do a deal, why can't ours?' The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are miles apart in political ideology and social and economic philosophy, yet they have been able to come together to form a coalition government with constitutional reforms on their agreed common agenda. Sceptics say their coalition may not last long. But at least the leaders of both parties are prepared to give it a try, in order to give some sense of stable government and even to rewrite, if possible, the British political landscape.

There has, no doubt, been some wheeling and dealing, but the politicians' boldness in dropping outdated, doctrinaire positions and exploring new possibilities is what defines the art of the possible.

Here in Hong Kong, politicians on all sides are still dug in a deep quagmire. Sunday's pseudo referendum - by way of resignation by five pan-democrat legislators to trigger by-elections - has not made the political scene any clearer. The pan-democrat camp is confused and divided; so are many in the community. The pro-establishment parties boycotted the by-election, so there was no contest.

In the end, the 'referendum' instigators had to call on people to simply come out to vote as a matter of civic responsibility. This is woolly logic: all elections are political, so, if people do not support their action, why should they have come out to vote?

A low voter turnout does not mean that everyone who failed to vote opposes universal suffrage. Repeated opinion polls have indicated that the majority in Hong Kong demands full democracy. Similarly, some of those who voted did so for the sake of pan-democrat solidarity, but did not endorse the referendum-by-resignation tactic. Thus, nobody should really claim any victory from this messy by-election, least of all the government - which still faces the daunting task of achieving a political consensus on constitutional reform. All sides, including the pan-democrat parties, hold a veto power over any electoral changes in 2012. The zero progress achieved in the 2005 political showdown was due to all sides preferring to stay within their comfort zones. If they hold the same mentality today, history will repeat itself; politics and governance will remain as gloomy as ever.

In Britain, it took a 'hung' Parliament to finally persuade political adversaries to work for compromise at all cost, since the lack of it would mean the worst case for all. Do our politicians in Hong Kong, and also the central government, have the same courage and political sense?

Let's review their fundamental positions. As far as the government goes, there is limited room to alter the key features of the 2012 package, which democrats see as too small a step forward. Beijing has reaffirmed its commitment to the 2017/2020 timetable for electing the chief executive and all the legislature by universal suffrage, but falls short of saying whether functional constituencies should be abolished. However, the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has made it clear that functional constituency elections do not conform to the principle of universal and equal suffrage. Some moderate pan-democrats, while they do not like the current package for 2012, may support its passage if there is concrete reassurance on the 2017/2020 timetable, and if the government commits itself to a bigger step forward in 2016.

The missing link is the current administration's lack of a mandate to deal with the 2016 electoral arrangements, under the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. But this can be overcome if there is a will to find a breakthrough. There must be a meeting of minds, no matter how politically calculated, to narrow the gap and facilitate compromise.

First, the details of the 2012 package can be fine-tuned to entrench a stronger democratic element in the political system. Second, tripartite talks - among government, pro-establishment and pan-democrat representatives - should start, to identify ways to make constitutional progress in 2016 and beyond, including the question of functional constituencies.

Third, the central government should take the view that all elections under the 2017/2020 timetable will be based on universal and equal suffrage, with open nomination of candidates.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank