Vote on electoral reform is Hong Kong's democratic moment

Regina Ip says while a veto of the electoral reform package may pacify government critics, the fact remains that a vote for it will enfranchise millions of Hongkongers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 1:27am

In a few weeks' time, the Legislative Council will vote on the government's motion on election of the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. Talking tough and refusing to budge, legislators in the pan-democratic camp are set to face the biggest political dilemma of their life - to support the motion or not.

In the past week, Zhang Rongshun , vice-chairman of the Legislative Affairs Commission under the National People's Congress Standing Committee, has held closed-door meetings in Shenzhen with supporters in the pro-China camp. The meetings were clearly designed to send unequivocal signals to the pan-democrats that amendments to the electoral framework laid down by Beijing last August would not be entertained.

Notwithstanding Zhang's clear and firm statements, speculation in the pan-democrats' circle remains rife that Beijing will make an about-turn at the last minute, as the central government did in the last electoral reform exercise in 2010.

As the voting day draws near, those who refuse to allow Hong Kong people's unprecedented right to vote for their chief executive to go down in flames are racing against time to resolve the impasse.

Albert Chen Hung-yee, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Hong Kong, urged the government to postpone the vote to a date after the Legislative Council election in September 2016.

Two moderate, long-time members of the Democratic Party, former legislator Nelson Wong Sing-chi and social worker Tik Chi-yuen, have in different ways urged compromise. In a debate with student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Tik urged the pan-democrats to take account of public opinion, and pointed out that universal suffrage would change the political ecology of Hong Kong.

Earlier this week, Nelson Wong pledged to start a signature campaign to mobilise support for the motion, subject to the government's agreement to certain conditions. His move was aborted after his party voted to suspend his membership.

But moves by Wong and Tik to break ranks with the hardline rejectionists show deep fissures within the pan-democrat camp. Such divisions are understandable, if one considers the consequences of the possible outcomes of the vote in Legco next month.

If the government motion is vetoed, those opposed to giving the future chief executive a much greater popular mandate would breathe a deep sigh of relief. Crowds outside Legco might claim victory. The pan-democrats who voted against the motion would escape immediate censure and accusations of betrayal of the democratic cause. But they risk being punished by their more moderate supporters who wanted the right to vote for the chief executive, and losing seats in the elections later this year and in 2016.

In the longer term, the inability to move forward on democratic development could cause those with democratic yearnings to be even more disgruntled, and society and the legislature to be more polarised, making it even more difficult for the government to implement the change that is necessary for Hong Kong's continued success.

If the government motion is passed, whether with the support of four or 14 votes from the pan-democrat camp, disorder, if not outright rioting, would probably break out outside the legislature. Threats of mobilising more than 100,000 protesters to lay siege to Legco have already been made.

Angry crowds outside Legco would hardly be surprising, as such crowds gathered outside the old legislature in June 2010, after lawmakers approved the last government motion on constitutional reform. At that time, young radicals opposed to any form of compromise with the government heaped verbal abuse on leaders of the Democratic Party who supported the government.

Five years on, with escalating hostility in the staging of protests, more violent confrontations with government officials and legislators who supported the government motion could not be ruled out. However, once such spasms of anger are out of the way, Hong Kong's political system would be well on its way to a fundamental, qualitative change.

The passage of the motion would mean that five million more permanent residents of Hong Kong, irrespective of their nationality, would be enfranchised in the choosing of the chief executive.

Such an extension of the franchise would be a giant leap forward compared to the closed system in the colonial era, when Hong Kong people had no say whatsoever in the choice of the governor.

It is true that many still object to the "screening" of candidates by the nominating committee. But the reality is that elections for positions of real power everywhere have high thresholds. Elections are by definition a winnowing process in which a range of candidates are flushed out until the most competitive one is chosen.

But once millions more voters have been enfranchised, the voice of the people could only get louder. The vote in Legco next month is Hong Kong's democratic moment, which the representatives of our people should not throw away.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party