There was a sense of deja vu as more than 100 people, including academics, officials and politicians, gathered for a seminar on the long-term development of the Hong Kong Government on Sunday. Some of the participants at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre could not help feeling they had been taken back to the 1980s when hardly a week passed without similar functions being held to discuss the pre- and post-1997 political system. Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of the City University and Professor Byron Weng and Professor Lau Siu-kai, both of the Chinese University, three renowned academics whose views were taken seriously by Beijing and the colonial administration, were there. So were politicians Leong Che-hung, Emily Lau Wai-hing, Christine Loh Kung-wai, Anthony Cheung Ping-leung and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, whose stars rose during Hong Kong's 15-year transition to Chinese sovereignty because of the active roles they played striving for greater democracy. The Sino-British Joint Declaration merely provided that the Chief Executive of the SAR be 'selected by elections or consultations' and that the SAR legislature be 'constituted by elections'. The details of the political system were to be fleshed out in a Basic Law. The drafting of the Basic Law provoked frenzied discussion in the community on issues such as the relationship between the executive and the legislature, composition of the legislature and pace of democratisation. The promulgation of the Basic Law in 1990 brought much of the discussion to an end, although many issues remained unresolved. Sunday's seminar, organised by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, saw participants discussing the same issues which were hotly debated in the 1980s. What has changed is that Hong Kong has been reunited with China. More importantly, the Basic Law has been in operation for eight months and the weaknesses of the political system have become apparent. Speaking on the legislature's challenge to the Chief Executive, Professor Lau pointed out that problems concerning the relationship between the executive authorities and the legislature had surfaced. The Basic Law provided an American-style presidential system for the SAR, he said. But while the Chief Executive was vested with wide powers, he needed the support of the legislature in implementing his policies. However, since he was returned from a limited franchise, not a popular vote, he had a problem of legitimacy, as the legislators were returned from a much broader franchise. The Basic Law's provisions on the composition of the legislature were founded on the assumption that the 30 legislators returned from functional constituencies would rally to the support of the Chief Executive. In practice, Professor Lau said, these legislators could not help adopting the same tactics used by the other 30 returned from direct elections in order to appeal to the wider public. As a result, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa could find no steady and reliable support in the legislature, thus compounding the difficulties he faced as a head of government not returned by popular vote, he said. The forum heard that the Chief Executive could perhaps better manage his relationship with the legislature if a ministerial system was in place. As former Bar Association chairman Gladys Li Chi-hei noted, the 1984 green paper, Further Development of Representative Government, contemplated introducing the system. The paper proposed that 'at least eight of the unofficial members of the Executive Council should be selected by unofficial members of the Legislative Council from among their own number'. However, the reform was never implemented. Time and again, Mr Tung has said it was not the right time to introduce a ministerial system. Nevertheless, Provisional Legislative Council member Bruce Liu Sing-lee wondered how Mr Tung could forestall further pressure on him without it. He noted that provisional legislators from political parties representing different interests had, on various occasions, entered into 'unholy alliances' to veto the administration's proposals. More of this co-operation was likely in the next legislative session and the pressure could be big enough to undermine the administration's governance, he said. Professor Kuan Hsin-chi, of the Chinese University, struck at the heart of the problem when he said there was a weak link between Hong Kong's electoral system and responsible government. The problem, a number of speakers noted, could only be resolved when the Chief Executive was directly elected. But as Professor Cheng said, this would ultimately depend on whether the mainland developed a more open political system. As it is, when Hong Kong people cast their votes in the Legislative Council elections in May, they will not be choosing a government, but an opposition. David Newman, of Lingnan College, and Ivan Choy Chi-keung, of City University, experts on voting systems, agreed various systems could be considered fair and had their advantages and disadvantages. But they criticised the fact that Hong Kong has changed its electoral system three times over the past seven years, apparently to ensure the losers in the previous election would have a better chance of winning the next. In the 1991 Legislative Council election, the 'double vote, double seat' system was used. This was changed to 'single vote, single seat' in 1995. In May, the proportional representation system will be adopted and is likely to benefit pro-Beijing parties such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong over the democrats. Legco is but one component of Hong Kong's political system. Another important, but often neglected, bloc is the local councils, the subject of a review by the administration. What intrigued the speakers was the motive behind the review, which has so far been perceived as aimed at curbing the powers of the Urban and Regional Councils. Mr Tung had talked of public hygiene, the responsibility of the two councils, deteriorating in recent years, as if to suggest the central Government should assume the function. Speaking at the forum, Deputy Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Maureen Chen also raised the issue of whether the councils' budgets should be vetted by the Legislative Council. Yet, she shied away from disclosing the administration's interpretation of the Basic Law provision that the councils should not be 'organs of political power'. The 1980s are clearly behind us and the Basic Law has been put to use. But a whole range of constitutional issues still await our deliberations.