A year after the political reform package for the 2012 polls was passed, the government has yet to make good the promise of abolishing the appointed seats in district councils. When asked about the lack of progress last week, constitutional chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung said only that he aims to table the proposals before the district council polls in November. The people are being kept in the dark whether the seats will be scrapped in one go or in phases.
It is disappointing that the government is still dragging its feet over the abolition of 102 appointed seats, the existence of which clearly goes against the spirit of democracy. As we move towards electing the chief executive and the legislature via universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020 respectively, it remains unclear whether by then the lower political tier would still comprise members who are hand-picked by the city's leader. The appointment system, abolished by the British in 1994 but reinstated after the handover, makes a mockery of efforts to reform our electoral system. It is difficult to agree with Lam that there is no direct relationship between universal suffrage and abolishing the appointed seats. The proposals are only due shortly before district councils begin their new term in January, leaving insufficient time for scrutiny. The minister is setting the wrong priority when he is asking Legco to first tackle a bill seeking to plug a so-called loophole in response to one-off by-elections last year, in which rebel lawmakers resigned and turned the ensuing ballot into a referendum opposed by Beijing.
Critics may be going too far in saying the appointed seats, like illegal structures added to buildings, are 'political add-ons' that should be demolished. Some appointees are expert in their profession. But instead of taking a free political ride, they could better serve the council by winning a public mandate via the ballot box. There is no reason to keep a mechanism that effectively allows the government to distort the electors' choice by re-engineering the council's balance of power. Appointed seats must be scrapped as soon as possible.