The district council elections in November will be more competitive than in the past. With a record 412 seats up for grabs, 243 hopefuls signed up on the first day of the two-week nomination period on Thursday. The number of registered voters, at more than 3.5 million, marks a 22 per cent increase over the last decade. This is a strong indication of the community's democratic aspirations as we move towards universal suffrage. Sadly, the government seems reluctant to move forward with the community. On the eve of nominations opening, constitutional affairs chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung announced that the promised scrapping of appointed district council seats would only be introduced in phases. Only one-third of these will be removed ahead of the coming election.
This system, axed by the British in 1994 but restored after the handover, allows the city's leader to select people to take the appointed seats in the 18 district councils. It is true that many of these people have served the community well. But that is not the point. Allowing the chief executive to pick them is out of step with Hong Kong's democratic development. It allows the government to stack the cards. The decision not to scrap all 102 appointed seats immediately is disappointing.
The question of when the appointed seats will be abolished has held back democratic reform. In 2005, we missed a chance to make progress partly because of objections from democrats to the government's intention to keep the appointed seats. The decision to scrap them was crucial in forging a deal on the way forward last year. Some democrats are complaining that the government has gone back on a promise to conduct a public consultation on the timetable for removing these seats.
Whether the remaining two-thirds will be removed in one go or in phases remains unclear. Lam would only say they would not last beyond 2020, when the Legislative Council is expected to be elected by universal suffrage for the first time. There is no need to wait that long. If the government has accepted that the appointed seats should go, there is no point in keeping them for another nine years.
The Basic Law requires progress towards universal suffrage to be 'gradual and orderly'. But this does not mean the same approach has to apply to every undemocratic element of our system. There is no legal or practical reason why the appointed seats should not be removed right away.
We look forward to free, fair and hotly contested district council elections. The prospect of some successful candidates ultimately securing a seat in Legco, as a result of reforms, has drawn some big names. Hong Kong's progress to democracy would be significantly boosted if all the district council seats were filled in this way.