Electoral reform in Hong Kong must be based on proper understanding of its context

Carrie Lam says there is a need for a common appreciation of the historical, constitutional, legal and political context of Hong Kong's electoral reform, so as to enable compromise

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 3:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 4:03am

The task force on constitutional development, which I headed, has submitted its consultation report to the chief executive, who has just made a report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, inviting it to decide whether the methods for selecting the chief executive in 2017 and for forming the Legislative Council in 2016 should be amended. This is the first step which has formally kick-started the "five-step process" of constitutional development.

During the consultation, we appealed to the people of Hong Kong to have a dialogue with us and highlighted the clear basis for introducing universal suffrage. The people are indeed eagerly looking forward to selecting the chief executive by "one person, one vote" in 2017. However, the community is divided over certain issues.

As we stand at the crossroads, it is worthwhile revisiting a few important perspectives with a view to reaching a consensus and finding a way forward.

First, the historical perspective. The aim of selecting the chief executive and forming Legco by universal suffrage was first set out in the Basic Law promulgated in 1990, not the Sino-British Joint Declaration. At that time, the legislature had yet to have in place geographical direct elections, but the Basic Law promulgated by the NPC had already incorporated the aim of selecting the chief executive and electing all Legco members by universal suffrage.

As for the timetable of selecting the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, it was set by the NPC Standing Committee in 2007. Without the Basic Law and the Standing Committee's decision, we would not have any foundation to discuss the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017.

Second, the constitutional perspective. The state established the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region pursuant to Article 31 of the constitution. Article 2 of the Basic Law says that the NPC authorises the HKSAR to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law.

Article 12 provides that the HKSAR shall be a local administrative region which shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy and come directly under the central government. Being a local administrative region, as opposed to an independent polity, the design and development of Hong Kong's political structure must follow the requirements prescribed by the NPC. The central authorities play a clear and significant role in amending the methods for selecting the chief executive and forming the legislature. It is provided in the Basic Law that the chief executive selected by universal suffrage shall be appointed by the central government. The chief executive is also required to implement the directives issued by the central government in respect of the relevant matters provided for in the Basic Law.

Accordingly, the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage not only concerns the people of Hong Kong, but is also an important state business, in terms of the relationship between the central and local authorities.

Third, the legal perspective. Article 45 of the Basic Law provides that the chief executive shall be selected by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. Throughout the consultation period, we have been stressing that discussion on constitutional development should be based on the Basic Law. We have also quoted in the consultation report that there are views which consider that any proposal bypassing or undermining the powers of the nominating committee to nominate candidates is highly unlikely to conform with the Basic Law.

Laws, especially those of a constitutional nature like the Basic Law, which have been formulated through reasonable legislative processes, should never be freely interpreted or lightly abandoned. If the proposal put forward by the government for consideration by the community and Legco is contrary to the law, our constitutional reform will go down the wrong path and stand a slim chance of success.

Fourth, the political perspective. The most difficult step in the "five-step process" is to get the proposal passed by a two-thirds majority of all Legco members, which means that it must receive cross-party support to some extent and political parties must make compromises.

I understand that the political atmosphere in the community is tense at present. After the consultation, there are still a considerable number of people expressing their different opinions on constitutional development proposals. These opinions should be respected by both the government and legislators.

Real politics should work for the long-term and overall interests of the community. A consensus on realising the goal of universal suffrage is not unattainable if we bear the common good in mind, move a step further, and try to resolve the differences or even stop insisting on some of one's own views. In my opinion, serving the common good is the true purpose of politics, and is also the perspective through which our community should consider constitutional reform. Last but not least, constitutional development should not be viewed solely from a historical perspective. We should also look forward. Some people regard the universal suffrage system of 2017 as the final stage of constitutional development, making parties further polarised to hold onto their views about the arrangement.

My personal view is that the relevant system could be further refined after the implementation of universal suffrage. Implementing universal suffrage in 2017 is our first step. This will allow more than five million eligible voters to elect the chief executive through "one person, one vote". Once in place, the arrangement will form an integral component of the SAR's constitutional system, which will not turn back but only forge ahead.

The first step in the "five-step process" of constitutional development will bring us closer to the goal of selecting the chief executive by universal suffrage. After the Standing Committee makes a decision on whether there is a need to amend the method for selecting the chief executive, the Hong Kong government will carry out a consultation on the specific proposals around the end of this year.

I again call on the people of Hong Kong to continue the discussion in a rational and pragmatic manner, narrow the differences and reach a consensus on constitutional reform. By so doing, we will be able to achieve universal suffrage in 2017, and more than five million eligible voters in Hong Kong will have the chance to cast their votes for the next chief executive.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is Hong Kong's chief secretary