Little ground for optimism on Hong Kong electoral reform

Gary Cheung says the weight of public opinion may not be enough to force a rethink on political reform by the pan-democrats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 1:29pm

A week before the announcement of the government's proposal for the 2017 chief executive election, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying expressed confidence that legislators would pass the blueprint for electoral reform. But is there any realistic ground for such optimism?

The proposal, due to be released on Wednesday, is expected to follow Beijing' restrictive framework, under which only two or three candidates who have clinched majority support from a 1,200-member nominating committee could contest the one-man, one-vote public ballot in 2017. Even the lower entry barrier for aspirants and the arrangement that each committee member could support or reject each aspirant - which may give pan-democratic candidates a relatively higher chance to enter the public ballot - offer little incentive for even moderate pan-democrats to back the package.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also reminded pan-democrats there would be no last-minute compromises. Although Leung was confident lawmakers would eventually pass the blueprint, it is nothing more than psychological warfare.

The weight of public opinion in favour of settling for what many view as an imperfect package is seen as the government's last hope to win the support of some pan-democrats. Officials suggested earlier that backing from more than 60 per cent of Hongkongers might be enough to persuade pan-democrats to support the reform package. Surveys conducted by six agencies in February and March found the support rate for Beijing's ruling on political reform ranged from 40.2 per cent to 60.9 per cent. Most support was recorded in a survey commissioned by the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Yet, even with backing of 60 per cent, it may be wishful thinking for officials to believe it could force pan-democrats to make a U-turn.

According to a survey by Lingnan University in January, 77 per cent of respondents who describe themselves as "pan-democrats" said lawmakers should vote down the government proposal if it follows Beijing's framework. More than 63 per cent of those respondents said they would not vote for a lawmaker in next year's Legislative Council election if his or her voting preference for the proposal deviated from their stance. It is obvious there is no ground for pan-democrats to offend their supporters.

The chance of pan-democrats facing the consequences at the ballot box next year, even if they go against mainstream public opinion, is rather low under the existing proportional representation electoral system, adopted in 1998, in which parties or non-affiliated groups rank candidates on lists. Their chance of winning a seat is based on a "quota" - obtained by dividing the number of valid votes cast in the constituency by the number of available seats.

If a party gets enough votes to meet the quota, it automatically wins a seat. Whoever gets the other seats is determined by ranking the so-called remainder votes. Under the system, having a small but fervent support base is enough to win a seat.

Pan-democrats might have come under greater pressure if the single-seat, single-vote system, adopted for geographical constituencies before the handover, was still in place because they would have needed to secure the support of more than half the voters in a constituency.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor