Back-room manoeuvres a threat to 2017 election

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am

Despite the passing of the constitutional reform package in June and Beijing's various decisions on the issue, much of Hong Kong's political future remains uncertain.

Rather than clarify matters, the formal announcements from the central government in recent years have tended to raise further questions. In 2004 a National People's Congress Standing Committee interpretation of the Basic Law ruled out universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive and the legislature in 2007 and 2008 respectively, thereby dispensing with what was considered to be a loose timetable in the Basic Law.

Three years later the Standing Committee again ruled out elections through universal suffrage in 2012 but held out the prospect of a timetable by suggesting it may be possible in 2017 and thereafter. Then, amid the debate on this year's reform proposals, Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary general of the Standing Committee, twice reiterated the 'legal effect' of that timetable for universal suffrage.

These statements seemed to end the debate as to when Hong Kong will get its first taste of universal suffrage. In 2017 the full voting population of Hong Kong is expected to make history in holding the first free and fair elections to choose our own leader through one man one vote. So the news that senior mainland officials are approaching preferred potential leaders to see if they might be interested in running for the top job in 2017 raises concerns. The discussions seem to have developed to such an extent that a quasi-political strategy of the favoured candidate joining the 2012 administration to gain more political exposure was mapped out. This suggests Beijing is already seeking to ensure one of its preferred candidates is elected.

Clearly, Beijing has a strong interest in the outcome of the 2017 election. According to the Basic Law, the Chief Executive will be accountable to the central people's government and even after elections must be appointed by Beijing.

Nevertheless, the purpose of having elections is to ensure Hong Kong's leader is a genuine choice of the people. Elections which are used merely to endorse a preferred candidate - or one of a small number of preferred candidates - determined by behind-the-scenes discussions would not achieve that. In short, such elections would not fulfil what has been promised to Hong Kong in 2017.

The procedures governing the nomination of candidates for the election in 2017 are yet to be put in place. Whatever form they take they must ensure a level playing field which allows candidates from across the political spectrum to stand. We must avoid any de-facto screening mechanism which excludes all but a small number of hand-picked candidates.

Similarly, rather than openly acknowledge one of the absurdities of traditional functional constituencies - which value business connections so much that foreign companies have votes where ordinary Hong Kong residents do not - government officials here are negotiating with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce to change its membership rules internally. It would do better to look into scrapping the system of corporate voting which has created this problem.

The passing of the constitutional reform package was a landmark. Every effort must now be made to ensure that the elections which take place from 2017 onwards are free, fair and open to a wide selection of candidates.