By-election bid put on hold in latest U-turn

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am


The government yesterday proved once again that a week is a long time in politics by making another U-turn, this time on its controversial proposal to scrap Legislative Council by-elections.

Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen emerged after a hastily arranged meeting with 21 government-friendly lawmakers to announce a delay in voting on the controversial bill, which was scheduled for July 13.

Instead, the government will launch a two-month public consultation this month, and resume the process in the 2011-12 Legco session.

The U-turn came three days after the annual July 1 march, which drew the biggest turnout since 2004 - organisers put the attendance at 218,000, while police put the figure at 54,000 - and six days after some changes were made to the bill.

Dr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said he believed the delay was aimed at avoiding undermining the prospects of government-friendly parties in November's district council elections and next year's Legco poll.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen still defended the bill's intent, insisting the public was 'strongly opposed' to lawmakers resigning to trigger by-elections as a means to achieve so-called referendums.

Tang said the decision to delay the vote came after hearing the views at yesterday's Legco bills committee meeting, which scrutinised the revised proposal. The Liberal Party tabled an amendment that would allow a by-election in the event a midterm vacancy arose from death or serious illness.

A government insider sought to play down the link between the July 1 march and the latest U-turn, saying the delay was decided after talks with pro-government lawmakers. 'We note that the public called for plugging the loophole. Withdrawal of the bill is not an option because it would send a confusing signal to the community,' the insider said.

Lee Cheuk-yan, a pan-democratic legislator from the Confederation of Trade Unions, said the government should withdraw the bill and set no precondition for the consultation. 'The consultation is a sham, as it will be based on the government's revised package,' he said.

Radical pan-democratic group People Power said it would still protest outside the Legco building on July 13 against the government's plan to scrap by-elections.

In January last year, five Civic Party and League of Social Democrats lawmakers resigned to trigger by-elections, which they hoped would be seen as a de facto referendum on the scope and pace of democratisation. But other parties did not contest the polls, and all five were voted back into office last May. Turnout was a record-low 17 per cent.

In May, the government proposed to end the practice of holding by-elections by filling Legco midterm vacancies with the next-best-placed candidates in the previous election, regardless of political affiliation.