Pace of democratic reform the key to its success

Mike Rowse offers some suggestions for our pan-democratic leaders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:41am

Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee took the opportunity of a Valentine's Day radio show to send out a message both bold and affectionate to other members of the pan-democratic camp. Under her leadership, the party is not going to wait for the government's proposals on democratic reform to be published: rather, it is going to get to work right away, together with other like-minded political parties, to spell out their own set of proposals for how to achieve universal suffrage.

This is good news on several fronts. First, because being constructive in this area is much more likely to secure positive results. Secondly, because an early start will provide adequate time for differences to be aired and accommodations reached. Thirdly, because it implies an end to the internecine warfare within the pan-democratic camp which so weakened progressive forces during the last Legislative Council election. Last, but not least, it will also challenge the government to sharpen its own thinking.

There are three sets of elections approaching: for Legco in 2016; the chief executive in 2017; and Legco again in 2020. We need to think of them as a set of three, close together fences in a show jumping round which calls for the highest degree of professionalism from both horse and rider.

The central government has indicated that we can have elections for the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, and for our legislature after that (by implication, in 2020 at the earliest). It is important to realise that this is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Hong Kong still needs to jump all the fences, in the correct sequence, if our city is to have a clear round.

So we need to begin with the first fence, which means reaching agreement on the arrangements for 2016. Reform proposals need to strike the right balance: they must be achievable now, that is, a way must be found to secure the required two-thirds majority in the legislature, that is, 47 votes.

The first question to be asked is whether to leave the present balance of geographic and functional constituencies as they are, at 35 each, and seek to democratise purely by changes to the composition of the latter, or to begin to tilt the balance in favour of the former.

My reading of past sentiment is that there must be a decisive shift in favour of geographical constituencies, or trust in the Hong Kong and central governments will be fatally weakened. The shift does not have to be huge, but it must be discernible and send a clear message; I suggest a change in the balance to 40:30.

Looking at the remaining functional constituencies, the five new super seats introduced last time seemed very popular, attracting many hundreds of thousands of votes. Their existence also emphasises the importance of building on district administration. So, let's double their number to 10.

We will then have 50 seats occupied by de facto directly elected members, enough to implement more reform next time. But the changes which achieved this were not so wild as to raise concern.

Turning to the remaining 20 functional constituencies, we face probably the easiest question of all. Is there still a place in the 21st century for corporate voting? Of course not. So, only individuals should be eligible to vote, and it is not going too far to insist that there must be some improvement in the representativeness of the seats concerned by setting a minimum threshold for the number of voters - say, 50,000.

There is a skill in clearing a set of three close fences: the horse and rider must approach at exactly the right speed so they clear each fence comfortably without breaking stride.

The outline above provides the basis for a reform package that satisfies the twin tests of achievability now while providing a firm basis for further reform later.

If Eu and her colleagues get this wrong, history will not look kindly on them. But if they get it right, there will be Valentine's Day roses for years to come.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.