Electoral reform could take as long three years to agree, history suggests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 10:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 4:09am

Yesterday's release of a consultation document on constitutional reform is just the first step on a long and tortuous road to confirming the method of election for the Legislative Council in 2016 and chief executive in 2017.

Previous experience suggests it could take as long as three years before legal and political hurdles are overcome and we have a final outcome. That raises the question of whether the package will be implemented before the Legco poll in 2016.

Yesterday's announcement by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is not even the first step in what has become known as the "five-step procedure" for constitutional reform.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will need to make reference to the results of the five-month consultation when he submits a report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on whether there is a need to amend the electoral methods. The second step will be for the Standing Committee to say the city can go ahead with the reform.

The focus of the reform will then return to Hong Kong, where the government will have to submit two bills to the Legislative Council - possibly after another round of public consultation.

This stage is set to be a battlefield as the government seeks the two-thirds majority it needs in Legco, trying to find a compromise to suit the Beijing loyalists and pan-democrats, who have enough votes to block the bills.

In the reform processes of 2005 and 2010, arguments raged and led to 11th-hour concessions from the government. Two days ahead of the Legco vote on the bills in 2005, the government offered to phase out all appointed district councils seats by 2016 in exchange for pan-democrats' votes. The offer was to no avail and the package - which included an expanded Legco and bigger election committee to choose the chief executive - fell.

Negotiations over a similar package in 2010 took an even more dramatic twist.

The government accepted the Democratic Party's proposal that five new seats representing the district council functional constituency be directly elected rather than by the 18 district councils. The "super seats" proposal was endorsed after talks between the central government's liaison office and moderate pan-democrats. That earned enough votes for the reform to pass, but caused a split in the pan-democrat ranks.

Should the government get its way in Legco, the chief executive must give formal consent to the law before the Standing Committee gives its final approval.

The drama is unlikely to be confined to the formal political process.

Before the last-minute deal on reform in 2010, five pan-democrats opposed to the reforms stepped down, sparking what they hoped would be a de facto referendum on universal suffrage. The five were re-elected but their manoeuvre enraged Beijing and led to a law restricting the right of lawmakers who stand down to vote in by-elections.

This time, much of the focus will be on the Occupy Central campaign. Academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting came up with the idea of a civil disobedience campaign and has pledged to rally 10,000 volunteers to blockade the roads in Central in July unless the government comes up with a satisfactory proposal.

With the consultation not due to finish until May, the clock is ticking.