LAST week the Government-appointed Boundary and Election Commission (BEC) published proposed guidelines on activities relating to geographical constituency elections. These long-awaited proposals should help to concentrate the community's mind on finding ways to ensure clean and fair elections. By Asian and even international standards, direct elections in Hong Kong can be described as relatively non-corrupt. But the same cannot be said about elections by limited franchise, a method by which most members of the Legislative Council were selected. Limited franchise creates the environment for horse trading behind closed doors. In some functional constituencies, such as the banks, trade unions, commercial and industrial federations, elections were never held because the parties concerned resolved to field only one candidate each. Several years ago, a vote rigging scandal broke out in the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, in which companies rushed to join the chamber in order to be able to vote in the upcoming functional constituency election. All this begs the questions of whether Hong Kong is ready for democracy. The answer is yes: the Hong Kong people are ready for universal suffrage, and the colony should get rid of limited franchise. Not too long ago, I was asked to name a country where the majority of the inhabitants were ethnic Chinese and that multi-party democracy was able to flourish. My answer was and still is Taiwan. But I have a suspicion that, given half a chance, Hong Kong can also do it. Taiwan may have multi-party democracy, but I despair at the widespread and flagrant corruption in their electoral process - a severe blemish which the ruling Kuomintang admitted and condemned, but seemed powerless to eradicate. In Taiwan, I'm told, only the very well-off can stand for election because candidates invariably have to spend millions of dollars in order to have any chance of winning. If they get elected, so the story goes, they can recoup the money many times over. Under those circumstances, someone like me with no organisational support and very limited financial resources can never hope to get elected. Compared with Taiwan, the democratic process in Hong Kong seems cleaner and more acceptable. Here politicians cannot award lucrative government contracts and grant concessions. Such power lies in the hands of government bureaucrats. There is something to be said about not giving politicians too much power, particularly in finance. The popular rebellion against corrupt politicians in Japan, Italy and other countries is a salutary lesson for Hong Kong as the colony embarks on the belated course of democracy. It is true that direct elections in Hong Kong by geographical constituencies are not riddled with corruption, but malpractice and illegal activities were widespread during the first direct elections to Legco in September 1991. The most frequent complaints were of candidates spending more than the permitted $200,000. Some candidates produced so many election banners, placards, posters, pamphlets, T-shirts, badges and souvenirs that there was no way their election expenses were within the legal limit. HOWEVER, the authorities turned a blind eye to the blatant violations and made a mockery of the law. In the words of one despondent official, there was simply no will and no manpower to enforce the law. So bad was the situation that many voters watched with exasperation as law-breaking candidates acted with impunity. Numerous complaints were lodged with the police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, but no one was prosecuted. The only exception was in the functional constituency election. Legco member Gilbert Leung was convicted of vote buying in the Regional Council constituency, in which 36 Regco members chose one representative to Legco. Given the minuscule electorate, should it surprise anybody that the election was open to corruption and manipulation? The BEC proposals look like a serious attempt to deal with election malpractice. It may not be easy to grapple with the many-faceted problems of an election campaign. But given an iron will and a dedicated team, the BEC should be able to make elections clean and respectable.