A big step forward, but hard questions loom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am

The die has been cast. The government's amended constitutional reform package pushes the elections in 2012 in a more democratic direction and moves our city forward towards universal suffrage. Yesterday's vote on the way the chief executive is elected was a historic moment, the first time changes to Hong Kong's electoral system have been approved by Legco under procedures laid down in the Basic Law.

The vote in favour of the reform is welcome. The package itself is not ideal, but it is more democratic than the government's original proposals. And it has ensured that the worst possible outcome - no progress at all - has been avoided.

Now the focus must be on making the new arrangements work and pushing ahead with plans for the introduction of universal and equal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. The reform passed last night does not make the eventual shape of our political system under universal suffrage any clearer. So there is still much work to be done.

While the passing of the reform is significant, so is the manner in which the agreement was reached. For the first time, members of the Democratic Party met directly with central government officials. Their proposed amendment to the reform proposals was not initially greeted with much enthusiasm by Beijing. But that position changed when it became clear the original proposals would not receive sufficient votes. These talks between Beijing and the Democrats make a refreshing change from the hostilities of the past and bode well for the future. Their efforts - and those of the Hong Kong government - have broken the deadlock on reform and will, one hopes, mark the beginning of a new era in which there is greater understanding between the two sides.

But the Democratic Party's decision to support the amended package has created an acrimonious split in the pan-democratic camp. It is now, more than ever before, divided between moderates and hardliners who were unwilling to drop key demands in return for some kind of progress. When the heat of battle has cooled they must try to heal the wounds. The unity of the pan-democratic camp will be needed to ensure we continue to move forward.

While the passing of the reform is welcome, it would have been better if there had been a well-thought-out road map to the universal suffrage promised for 2017 and 2020. The Democrats' proposal was adopted at the last minute without time for the public to be consulted or even for much discussion in Legco. The Election Committee that selects the chief executive is to be expanded.

In the second part of the package, which will be put to the vote today, there will be five new geographical constituencies for Legco. Everyone who does not already belong to a functional constituency will have a vote in five new ones, with candidates nominated by district councillors. It is unclear how this will work out and what it means in terms of further steps towards universal suffrage. Clearly, the procedures for contesting the new seats must be fair and allow candidates from across the political spectrum to stand.

The focus must now be on the future. Further changes will be needed beyond 2012. But key questions remain unanswered. How will candidates for chief executive be nominated under universal suffrage in 2017? Are functional constituencies to be reformed or scrapped?

A hard-fought compromise has enabled us to move forward. We must now build on these foundations. But the hard questions cannot be put off much longer.