District council route a bridge to nowhere
Pan-democrats have vowed to veto the government's 2012 election proposals unless they are offered a road map to universal and equal suffrage that abolishes functional constituencies.
They reject the idea of 'balanced participation of all sectors and groups of society', the principle in the Basic Law under which the business and professional sectors are effectively overrepresented in the committee that elects the chief executive, as well as in the Legislative Council through some two-thirds of the 30 functional constituency seats.
The rationale is that, guided by their own interests and knowledge, these sectors are best able to make choices that foster prosperity and stability. At the same time, a broad representation including labour and other sectors provides checks and balance.
Recent developments in Taiwan and Thailand have highlighted the importance of having constitutional safeguards to prevent universal suffrage being exploited or devolving in ways that are detrimental to long-term stability.
Hence, Beijing has indicated its belief - quite possibly shared by most Hongkongers - that 'balanced participation' should stay. But what form should it take to be consistent with universal and equal suffrage, even in a restricted sense?
One option is bicameralism. That might involve, say, hiving off functional constituencies to form a second chamber of the legislature, with different (and perhaps lesser) powers than those of the chamber returned by universal suffrage.
Another option is to keep functional constituencies. New functional seats could be created for housewives and young people not yet in work, for example, so that every voter would get two votes - one in their functional constituency, and one in a geographical constituency. The influence of the business sector would be diluted.
This system would be more efficient than having two chambers: issues could be debated one floor; bills would not have to pass the two chambers separately and then be reconciled; and stand-offs between chambers could be avoided.
Both options will introduce some democratisation. The second option - democratising the composition of functional constituencies - is mostly consistent with the National People's Congress Standing Committee's 2007 decision on Hong Kong's political development, and could be implemented for the 2012 elections - or even before.
However, as pan-democrats have rejected changes that help perpetuate functional constituencies in any form, the government was left with proposing the district-council option for 2012 as the way forward. This involves putting geographically elected district councillors in newly created functional constituency seats.
The proposed arrangement is tenuous in the longer term. District councils, unlike other functional constituencies, are not socio-economic groupings. In a large city, where people are too busy to care much about the administrative affairs in each of the 405 small-area constituencies, district council elections attract low turnouts. Pan-democrats often claim that the pro-establishment camp exerts undue influence at these levels. Certainly, one cannot keep adding district council seats to 'traditional' functional constituency seats.
So even if the government's package is passed, the real differences may remain unbridgeable. Instead, perhaps, a democratic mechanism may be the sword to slice the Gordian knot; let's hold a 'one person, one vote' election to allow citizens to choose the legislature's composition in 2020 from among proposals put forward by the two sides. No doubt the people would choose wisely.
James Lee writes as an independent commentator. The full version of this article is on www.hongkongbetter.com