Ray of hope as focus shifts to key issues for 2017 chief executive election

Mike Rowse says focus on nominating committeeis cause for optimism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 6:49am

Like shafts of sunlight bursting through the clouds at the end of a storm, some of the recent proposals for reform of the chief executive election arrangements bring both light and joy. No wonder Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is "cautiously optimistic". So am I.

The reason these ideas generate pleasure is not because of the detail, which in some cases is pretty excruciating. But, rather, because they focus on the only two issues that really matter: the representativeness of the nominating committee and the threshold for nomination.

All the talk of other means of nomination is a waste of time and energy. The Basic Law is pretty clear when it says candidates must be put forward by a "broadly representative" nominating committee. The problem is that the Election Committee - which we are enjoined to take as a starting point - is chronically unrepresentative and its structure is very complicated.

The simplest thing would be to make the existing 70 members of the Legislative Council the nominating committee. They are all elected, are broadly representative and will already be in position. If we make chief executive candidates secure a minimum of 10 signatures, then we are likely to end up with three or four runners.

If no candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the votes in the subsequent election by universal suffrage, then the top two can compete in a run-off.

The second best plan might be to take the 70 Legco members and add the 500-odd elected district councillors to make a total of about 600. Once again, they are all elected, they are broadly representative and, by 2017, we will know who they all are. Moreover, in the next cycle of elections, voters will know about this new responsibility being thrust on their shoulders. The thresholds will need to be adjusted, but again we can expect three or four candidates.

Third best, and we really are scraping the bottom of the barrel here, would be to accept much of the present Election Committee as a basis, but then add sufficient numbers of representative members to paper over its inadequacies.

Given that politics is the art of the possible, maybe this is the sort of compromise we will end up with.

Then we come to the threshold. It would be absurd to expect every candidate to receive support from a majority of the members of the nominating committee. Such a system would in effect mean the committee was still to all intents and purposes the Election Committee. The result would be one proper candidate plus one or more straw men put up so they could be defeated.

The proposal - to give each member of the committee three votes - is even more ridiculous. That would only work if the committee remains as unrepresentative as it is now.

If the nominating committee has its present degree of representativeness, that is, very slight, then the threshold will have to stay at its present low level of around one-eighth. The more reform we get on composition, the more scope there might be for raising the threshold to a higher figure, say 20-25 per cent.

The bottom line here is that if we stick with an unrepresentative nominating committee and move to a threshold of 50 per cent, then the election will fail in its main purpose of giving the next chief executive the legitimacy and mandate he needs to govern Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Central will be occupied.

But if we make some sensible reforms to the composition and maintain a reasonable threshold, then universal suffrage will work its magic. And we can all go hiking instead.

It is up to our political leaders, both here and in Beijing, to give us a political system that makes us feel good.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk