Universal Suffrage
CommentInsight & Opinion

Framework for political reform is best we could expect at this point in time

Lawrence Lau and Ayesha Macpherson Lau say Beijing's framework for universal suffrage in Hong Kong may not be perfect but it's the best we can hope for, given that it has to comply with existing laws

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 5:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 4:57am
 

The National People's Congress Standing Committee decision on political reform completed step two of the five-step process required to amend the method for the selection of Hong Kong's chief executive. It is a significant step forward in the city's democratic development.

The guiding principles laid down in the decision comply fully with the Basic Law and the Standing Committee's relevant decisions. They are also consistent with the gradual and orderly progress of democratic development in Hong Kong.

However, some in our community are disappointed with the decision for various reasons.

As Voltaire said, "The best is the enemy of the good." There is no question that the framework could be improved. However, it is probably the best outcome possible at this time, given that the method of electing the chief executive must comply with existing laws. Moreover, democracy cannot be built in a day. For example, African Americans were enfranchised in principle in 1865, right after the US civil war. Yet, it took a whole century after that before their rights were finally reaffirmed in the US Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Even now, minorities face hurdles as they try to exercise their right to vote in certain US states. This is not a criticism of the US, but only goes to show that true democracy takes time to evolve. The NPC decision may not be satisfactory in every way, but rejecting it does not advance the cause of democracy in Hong Kong. It is far better to accept it and work on improvements in the future.

Meanwhile, the membership of the nominating committee and method of election will follow the practice of the 1,200-member Election Committee of the 2012 chief executive election. Two to three candidates will be selected by the nominating committee; each will have to gain at least 50 per cent support. The decision does not specify the threshold for inclusion as a potential candidate; they presumably must be endorsed by a certain number of committee members.

There is actually no a priori reason why a candidate with the support of some pan-democrats cannot win over a majority of members and be nominated for election. However, it is also clear that anyone with an election platform of confronting the central government rather than focusing on domestic issues is unlikely to gain enough votes. That's because nominating committee members are likely to conclude that confronting Beijing is not in the best interests of the people of Hong Kong.

The Standing Committee decision is clearly compatible with the norm of "one person, one vote". But what about "international norms"?

The real question is whether some of these "norms" can be implemented in a way that complies with existing legal requirements. For this to happen, the Basic Law would have to be amended and the NPC decision modified. They can be - at some point. But for now, as a society that prides itself on its rule of law, we can do no less than comply with the existing laws.

It is true that not all voters in Hong Kong have the same degree of influence in selecting members of the Election Committee, which is to be used as a model for the nominating committee. This can be rectified in the future.

This problem of unequal influence also exists in the US system, thanks to the "winner-takes-all" nature of the institution that officially elects the president and vice-president, the Electoral College.

There is also a requirement for chief executive candidates to be patriots. We interpret that to mean he or she must be loyal to China and should not work against the interests of the nation. For those potential candidates who oppose such a requirement, it is worth asking what they consider "one country" to mean under the "one country, two systems" principle. It is perfectly reasonable that any candidate must identify with the Chinese nation and be a loyal Chinese citizen, since Hong Kong is part of China.

Some in our community are also disappointed that the decision does not provide for any change in the method of the Legislative Council election in 2016. While this is a high priority, the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive election will take up a great deal of time and effort in the immediate future. The community simply does not have the capacity to deal with two major political reforms simultaneously.

Moreover, since universal suffrage elections for Legco can occur only after the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage, it is logical to focus on the latter first.

The next step is for the Hong Kong government to propose a bill to amend the method for electing the chief executive in 2017. This bill needs to be approved by at least two-thirds of lawmakers. The government has no choice but to put forward a proposal that conforms with the Basic Law and the Standing Committee framework.

Hong Kong as a community has a choice. Through the votes cast by our Legco representatives, the people can decide whether to accept the proposed method, giving all eligible voters the right to directly cast a vote to elect the next chief executive, or to remain with the existing system of electing our next leader via the 1,200-member Election Committee. It is a choice of whether Hong Kong will achieve universal suffrage in 2017 or not.

Compared to the ways in which past chief executives and governors have been selected since 1842, direct election through universal suffrage, in whatever form, represents genuine democratic progress. And, compared to other parts of China today, Hong Kong's democratic development is way ahead. The direct election by universal suffrage of the mayor of Beijing or Shanghai is not even under discussion.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Hong Kong people prefer having universal suffrage in 2017 even if the election method is not "perfect". The electorate is ready for universal suffrage. Occupy Central is not a viable solution - it will only set back democratic development and undermine the rule of law. Let's hope the community can exercise its collective wisdom and make the right choice.

Lawrence J. Lau is an economist and Ayesha Macpherson Lau is a certified public accountant. The opinions expressed here are entirely the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of organisations with which they are affiliated

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