How universal suffrage should be introduced has long been a matter of public concern. But calls for an early consultation on the issue have been resisted by the government during the past year. Just as patience was running out, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying moved a step closer to kicking off the process. In a decision that surprised many observers, he established a task force on constitutional reform last week. Led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the group aims to consult the public by the end of this year. The timetable came earlier than many had expected, though Leung should have acted earlier. Nonetheless, the announcement is welcome news.
The consultation is pivotal in that it paves the way for a reform crucial to Hong Kong's future. It will determine whether universal suffrage for the chief executive election can be implemented in 2017 as planned and, if it can, what arrangements should be put in place. Equally important is the formation of the Legislative Council in 2016, which will point the way towards universal suffrage for the legislature by 2020. It is important that the public are closely engaged. Discussions should be rational, focused and pragmatic.
The content of the consultation has, understandably, aroused much concern. The pan-democrats are worried that their suggestion of allowing general voters to recommend or nominate chief executive candidates would not even be put to public discussion. This came after mainland officials openly criticised the idea, saying it did not conform with the Basic Law and decisions made by the National People's Congress Standing Committee. Although the government stopped short of rejecting the idea at this stage, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung rightly stressed that options inconsistent with the framework could not be considered. Politically, proposals without Beijing's blessing are unlikely to be adopted.
That said, the consultation is only the first of the five steps to complete constitutional reform. It is wise for Beijing to gauge people's sentiments at this stage.
The difficulties ahead cannot be overstated. But the challenge is not just for the government. For universal suffrage to be achieved, all parties concerned, particularly the pan-democrats, who command the crucial votes to pass reforms, have to work closely together. Co-operation and compromise are essential.