The prospect of universal suffrage in 2017 will be no more than a "mirage" if huge differences persist and rival camps fail to find common ground, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor warned yesterday.
The comments, made at a forum hosted by three youth groups, were the gloomiest prognosis yet from the woman heading a five-month consultation on reform for the 2017 chief executive election, the first due to be run under one person, one vote.
Lam acknowledged that the biggest divide was over nomination of chief executive candidates. Central and local government officials insist candidates can only be put forward by a nominating committee similar to the election committee that chose previous chief executives, as specified in the Basic Law. Pan-democrats say such an arrangement could see Beijing's critics screened out.
"Some people advocate public nomination and a three-track system - allowing voters and political parties to make nominations along with the committee," Lam said. "These people do not want any screening of candidates but they have not clearly defined the concept of 'screening'."
Lam said some criticisms from government critics were made out of "idealism" while others were "mere slogans".
"I am worried that, if opinions remain split and people are unwilling to come to terms with political reality by going back to the legal framework laid down by the Basic Law, universal suffrage in 2017 would become a mirage," Lam said. "I am pessimistic but I have not yet lost hope," she added, of the prospects for a deal.
The government must win a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council for any reform package to pass, meaning it must win over at least some pan-democrats. The reform package will also need Beijing's approval.
"Any proposal that would usurp or water down the rights of the nominating committee would not be able to receive political support," Lam added.
"Instead of wasting time on proposals which are difficult to forge consensus on, such as public nomination and party nomination, it's better to focus the discussion on how to form the nominating committee and the nomination process," Lam said.
Her comments echoed a warning from Elsie Leung Oi-sie, vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, two weeks ago that hopes of a deal were remote.
Dr Chan Kin-man, an organiser of Occupy Central - which has threatened to block streets in the city's financial district if no acceptable plan for universal suffrage is put forward - said Lam should focus on negotiating with the pan-democrats and Beijing.
As Beijing remained conservative, it was natural pro-democracy activists would table proposals. "It's a matter of trust," he said.