By-election reform is just a side issue
A government with five months left in office may not be able to achieve much. It can either step up efforts to tackle some pressing issues or focus on shaping its legacy. In either case, it strives to leave the city in good condition for the incoming administration.
The team of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, however, is acting otherwise. It has quietly put the revamp of Legislative Council by-elections back on the agenda. The controversial proposals were triggered by a one-off political stunt that lacked broad public support two years ago, when five pan-democrat lawmakers resigned to trigger by-elections they hoped would be a de facto referendum on the pace of democratic reform.
It is puzzling to see the government dwell on this so-called referendum loophole when there is neither urgency nor clear support to push ahead. Officials have apparently forgotten that the bill to scrap by-elections in favour of a replacement mechanism was put on hold after strong opposition manifested in the July 1 protest last year. But after a two-month consultation, the government has insisted that more people support taking action to tighten the law. The good news is that the government has listened to people's views. The traditional system of holding by-elections to fill midterm vacancies will be retained. This addresses the concerns many had expressed over the possible erosion of people's right to vote.
But following the consultation, the government has proposed to ban lawmakers from standing in a by-election within six months of quitting. This remains unacceptable to many who fear it would curb the constitutional right to stand in elections. While some may find the six-month ban measured and reasonable, it remains unclear whether it conforms to the Basic Law.
Moreover, the ban cannot effectively prevent similar campaigns from happening. This is because allies or party colleagues of the resigning lawmaker can still stand in the by-election. The last-minute decision to extend the ban to functional constituencies also looks arbitrary.
The campaign by the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats was no doubt an ill-conceived and wasteful exercise. It needlessly distracted attention from the quest to pave the way to universal suffrage in 2017 and beyond.
The government's move to plug the so-called loophole is no less problematic. Public interest would have been better served had the effort and time been spent putting in place an electoral system that conforms to universal suffrage. The Tsang team is misguided if it thinks midterm vacancies are a must-finish item on its agenda in the remaining five months of its rule.