Sorting out the seeds for 2017 chief executive election
Regina Ip says that while pan-democrats are sceptical about candidate screening for the 2017 chief executive election, nomination processes are common in the world's democracies
On July 16, Zhang Xiaoming made history by becoming the first head of the central government's liaison office to attend lunch at the Legislative Council. Rubbing shoulders with pan-democratic legislators and extending an invitation to all to visit the mainland, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong was visibly offering an olive branch to legislators from the "opposition".
Over lunch, Zhang inevitably touched on the method for electing the chief executive in 2017. Would there be a "sieve", that is, a screening process, to flush out those politically unacceptable to Beijing? Zhang responded by drawing on the New Testament's parable of the tares of the field.
"Nothing wrong with having a sieve," Zhang said. A sieve can help weed out the tares from the good seeds. In effect, he confirmed that some form of screening process would be unavoidable.
Much as the pan-democrats object to any screening that would bar their participation in the 2017 race, the reality is a nomination process is unavoidable in any election. Other than the fact that nomination of the chief executive by a "broadly representative" nominating committee is enshrined in the Basic Law, in hotly contested elections for the highest ruler of any territory, primaries or run-off elections are often held to ensure that only the strongest candidates enter the final stages of the race.
In the run-up to the chief executive election last year, the pan-democrats held primaries to screen out legislator Frederick Fung Kin-kee. A few days ago, Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, announced that her party would definitely be contesting the 2017 race. Ivan Choy Chi-keung, an academic from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, commented that the open, competitive "primaries" held within the pan-democratic camp in 2011 were a success and would likely be repeated, as an agreement through secret deals is not feasible.
The key question then is: would the authorities put forward a nominating process which is so heavily pitted against the pan-democrats that they would stand no chance of getting elected, despite their clear advantage in Legislative Council elections thus far?
Qiao Xiaoyang , chairman of the Law Committee of the National People's Congress, said in March that the chief executive of Hong Kong must be someone who "loves China and loves Hong Kong", and not someone who would confront the central authorities. However, he also admitted that such criteria could not be written into any electoral law. It would be hard in practice to differentiate who is a real patriot.
To circumvent the stringent requirement of securing nomination by a "broadly representative" nominating committee, some pan-democrats have suggested allowing someone to be nominated so long as he or she is able to garner 80,000-100,000 popular nominations.
Supporters of this proposal might have taken a leaf from the electoral laws of democratic countries, such as the ballot access laws of the US, which permit electoral candidates to secure nomination by a state if they are able to collect a number of nominations by ordinary citizens.
Yet under the US presidential nomination process, candidates from the two major parties or independent candidates need to meet the nomination requirement of every state, which varies greatly. The challenge does not lie in securing large numbers of nominations across the country. It lies in passing muster with voters in states that are culturally, economically and politically as diverse as different nations.
This tough requirement is the upshot of evolution over centuries, designed to ensure that a presidential candidate is answerable to voters who are as different as chalk and cheese, and able to resolve competing interests and requirements.
The Basic Law requirement of securing nomination by a "broadly representative" nominating committee is in a way not dissimilar - it is a demanding requirement, but one that might ensure that ultimately the strongest candidate with the broadest appeal and ability to serve Hong Kong is elected.
In the US, presidential candidates also face an extremely high threshold in the form of campaign finance. Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School estimates that in 2012, 60 per cent of the campaign funds raised by "super political action committees" - independent organisations allowed by US laws to contribute campaign funds to candidates - came from 132 billionaires, who made up 0.000042 per cent of the US population.
Without their support and that of influential campaign fundraisers who made up 0.005 per cent of the population, nobody could possibly get past the numerous hurdles to win a presidential election.
In comparison, Hong Kong's campaign expense limit for the chief executive election of HK$13 million in 2012, or perhaps double that amount in 2017, is much fairer and more humane in imposing a much lower financial burden on candidates.
So one way or another, screening mechanisms exist. Let us hope that ours will eventually be trials that test the true mettle of our candidates, enabling us to select a chief best equipped to govern Hong Kong.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party