Only one sensible option left over vote

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

At last, a breakthrough on democratic reform. Beijing appears to have approved a Democratic Party proposal to amend the government's plans. If so, this should be sufficient to secure enough votes from lawmakers to see the package passed. Common sense - and political necessity - appears to have prevailed.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who spoke positively about the proposal at the weekend, is expected to make an announcement as early as today. Such an outcome would be an achievement. Only a week ago, the prospect of a deal was remote.

There has been much political theatre surrounding the debate on reform, including the so-called de-facto referendum triggered by pan-democrat lawmakers, the government's Act Now campaign, and the debate between Tsang and the Civic Party's Audrey Eu Yuet-mee. A breakthrough appears to have been achieved in the only way it ever would be - frank negotiations and a little give and take.

A concession was needed to persuade moderate democrats to vote for the government's package. For months, officials insisted there was no room for any changes but faced with rejection by the Legislative Council of his proposals for the second time in five years, Tsang appears to have approved the Democratic Party's suggestion and asked Beijing to do the same.

The first sign of progress came when Elsie Leung Oi-sie, an adviser to Beijing on the Basic Law, did a U-turn on the Democratic Party's proposals and said she now supported them. Others in the pro-government camp followed suit. And when a leading mainland academic also backed the idea, it was clear a deal was in the pipeline.

It involves giving everyone in Hong Kong at least two votes. Those who do not already belong to functional constituencies would be able to vote directly for candidates in five new Legco seats for district councillors. The district councillors themselves would first nominate the candidates. This proposal has the virtue of being more democratic than the government's plan, which would only allow district councillors to vote in elections for these new seats. It is a way of opening up the new functional constituency seats to a form of direct election and marks a step towards universal suffrage.

It is also a measured development, in keeping with the Basic Law's requirement for gradual and orderly progress. The reforms will not dramatically alter the make-up of the legislature. But they are a significant improvement on the government's package. If the amended proposal is passed, a lot of work will still need to be done.

The arrangements for nominating candidates, to be settled by local legislation at a later date, will be crucial. They must not be too restrictive. Then there is the concern that by extending functional constituencies in this way, it will make it harder to scrap them in the future. But that is a battle to be fought another day.

For now, the priority must be to ensure the improved package is presented to Legco and passed. Certainly, it would have been better if the plan for 2012 had been part of a carefully thought out road map to universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. Now, it seems we will have a proposal hastily adopted before there has been time for the public to be consulted on it, or for it to be carefully thought through.

But there is nothing to be gained by another stalemate. The Democratic Party's proposal is the best we are likely to get ahead of Wednesday's vote. It is to be hoped that the idea has, indeed, been approved by Beijing. If so, lawmakers have only one sensible option - vote for it.