Pragmatism will see Hong Kong through the heated electoral reform debate

We should focus on finding common ground and getting the democratic procedures right

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:28am

The public consultation on how to select the chief executive in 2017 has gone on for nearly four months. We now have at least one consensus: that the great majority of Hongkongers want universal suffrage, irrespective of their political stance.

How this common wish is to be achieved is a major challenge.

The composition and electorate base of the nominating committee should be hot debating points. But the National People's Congress has decreed that the nominating committee "may be formed with reference to the current provisions regarding the Election Committee", implying that proposals outside this framework - such as expanding the base to all voters - are unlikely to be entertained.

What remains open for debate is how candidates should be put forth by the nominating committee "in accordance with democratic procedures", and how many are nominated.

The government's proposals on these two issues, at the next stage of the consultation exercise, will determine if a deal can be struck in the Legislative Council to enable this major step in constitutional development. If it is done, then we will enter a new phase under the Basic Law.

It is clear the central government will not accept any alternative source of nomination outside the nominating committee. Dwelling on public nomination and nomination by political parties will merely derail the consultation.

Pragmatism suggests it would be more productive for all sides to focus on getting the "democratic procedures" right. Insisting that the nominating committee must vote on candidates "as a whole organisation" might also mean no deal. It would be seen as a means for the central government to keep out unwelcome candidates at will. None of the 27 pan-democrats in Legco would dare to back it.

By the same token, if the number of candidates were kept to three, the pan-democrats would not play ball either, since the cap would be seen as a hurdle to keep their choice of candidates out of the contest list.

Finding and agreeing on the very narrow opening that would allow the reasonable to squeeze through is a test of our wisdom.

If we succeed, we could cheer for the resulting political bonus that would hopefully allow the government to govern more effectively. If we fail, we would waste more precious years in continuing to squabble, even more damagingly, over how this city should be run.

In my 40 years in public service, I witnessed how Hong Kong successfully overcame major challenges: the 1974 depression; the 1984 dollar crisis; the 1987 market meltdown; the 1989 Tiananmen incident; the emigration of the elite and professional class in the decade prior to the handover; the bursting of the property bubble after 1997; the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic; and the 2008 financial crisis.

Pragmatism and cool heads prevailed. Now, let us get our act together and show once again that we remain a can-do city.

Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council