Hong Kong Basic Law

Hong Kong still seeking a middle ground on electoral reform

Debate on electoral reform has been dominated by question of how chief executive will be nominated, with no sign of a consensus in sight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 4:01am

For the last five months, Hongkongers have been asking a key question: should the public be allowed to nominate chief executive candidates for the 2017 election? That is when some 3.5 million Hongkongers may choose the city's next leader by ballot, the first Chinese citizens to have that right.

More than 30 proposals by various political parties and think tanks across the political spectrum have suggested how the elections should unfold, as part of a public consultation on electoral reform.

But Hongkongers, swept up in election fever, have had their say, with 130,000 submissions on how to choose the city's leaders.

Party and think-tank proposals range from the most liberal - allowing voters to nominate any candidate for chief executive - to the most conservative - requiring candidates to secure the backing of at least 50 per cent of a nominating committee, expected to be dominated by Beijing loyalists.

In the 150 days since the consultation began, the rift between the two extremes has not narrowed, members of both camps say.

"The views are still polarised," said Dr Brian Fong Chi-hang, a Hong Kong Institute of Education political scientist, one of 18 academics who submitted a plan rejecting public nomination.

"Pan-democrats have been claiming the moral high ground to demand public nomination, whereas the government and Beijing loyalists have claimed the legal high ground to ban their ideas," Fong said.

Professor Larry Diamond, a political sociologist at Stanford University in California, said he knew of no elected office in the world like the one in Hong Kong, where the executive office holder served two masters.

"The [chief executive] has two constituencies he must answer to; the people and power elites of Hong Kong, and the leaders of the central government in Beijing, and the latter are in fact the decisive power," said Diamond, who has studied democracy worldwide.

China is allowing something that has never happened in the country: direct elections. Thus the city's politicians and civil-rights advocates constantly fret: will their proposals and candidates pass muster with Beijing?

"If China were a democracy, or if the Beijing authorities lacked veto power over Hong Kong's political-system choices, can anyone really doubt that Hong Kong would be a full democracy now?" asked Diamond.

Next, the Task Force on Political Reform, comprised of top officials, will sort through the proposals for two months, and then report to the chief executive.

The government has said that it expected to suggest its own voting proposal by the year's end, at the earliest.

The reform package - which will determine how the 2016 Legislative Council and 2017 chief executive are chosen- must be approved by a two-thirds majority in Legco.

Any package acceptable to pro-establishment lawmakers will also have to secure the support of at least five pan-democrats, assuming the president of Legco does not cast his vote, as is his usual practice.

Only a few activists and politicians are optimistic that any such consensus can be reached.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor lamented a few days before the consultation ended that the city still had "a long way to go" to reach a consensus on the 2017 election.

The city's mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, stipulates that the chief executive be chosen by universal suffrage upon nomination "by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures" - leaving much open to interpretation.

Pan-democrats, particularly radical parties and student groups, have repeatedly said they would not compromise on their demand that all voters get equal nominating rights. They fear that any other arrangement would allow the nominating committee to reject candidates that do no toe the Beijing-loyalist line.

Beijing officials say they do not want public nomination, saying it would violate Hong Kong's constitution.

Trying to bridge the gap between Beijing and pan-democrats are 18 academics who ditched the public nomination idea and focused on maintaining a lower threshold for getting nominated by a committee. Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the former chief secretary, and the Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah have suggested similar moderate models.

But recently, the election models proposed by key Beijing loyalists have made the possibility of reaching a consensus seem more distant.

For instance, two of the biggest pro-establishment parties, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, proposed a mechanism with block voting.

Under this scheme, each committee member would cast multiple votes to name candidates, giving the camp that dominates the committee the power to control the list.

Only the top two to four candidates who won support from at least half the nominating committee members would be qualified for the public vote.

Pan-democrats blasted the idea as "totally unacceptable". They believe that anti-establishment candidates, no matter how popular, would have no chance of running.

International political scholars have also said that compromise appeared far off. Proposals by Beijing-loyalist parties have failed to meet international standards for universal suffrage, as defined by the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Hong Kong pan-democrats have used the UN charter as a yardstick to measure the proposals.

"It is not possible to reconcile block voting with the requirement of universal and equal suffrage as detailed in ICCPR," said Professor Paul Gronke, co-editor of Election Law Journal and a political scientist at Reed College in Oregon.

"The [nominating committee] as currently constituted is not representative of the social, economic, political and ethnic diversity of Hong Kong.

"There is no reason to limit the number of names that can be proposed to the committee."

In fact, nominating committees themselves are rarely found in political systems worldwide.

"Having a small, unrepresentative nominating committee, biased towards the existing regime and screening all the possible candidates, is an awful lot like what happens in Iran, where the Guardian Council, a body appointed by the supreme leader, decides who can contest for president," Diamond said.

"Not surprisingly, this body disqualifies any candidate who is too serious about democratic reform."

International scholars who gathered at a roundtable discussion organised by the University of Hong Kong in March agreed that a nominating committee per se would not violate the UN charter. But they warned that the committee must reflect the will of Hongkongers, and that nominating procedures should be reasonable, fair and transparent.

But the Hong Kong Bar Association dismissed the right of the public to nominate, and said the Basic Law was clear: only the nominating committee could pick candidates.

However, the association also rejected the Beijing-loyalist camp's plan to set a high nomination threshold, saying it would hinder voters' choices.

In doing so, Fong said, the Bar Association vetoed the most extreme proposals on either side of the spectrum.

But those favouring public nomination didn't budge. The Civil Human Rights Front - an alliance of pan-democratic advocacy groups - vowed to continue the fight to allow anyone to run.

Professor Judith Kelley, a political scientist at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy in the US, pointed out the dilemma of Hongkongers.

"In such a situation, is it better to try to push the institution [nominating committee] as far as possible, to allow some voice for the people?" Kelley asked.

"Perhaps, but this incurs the risk of providing a false sense of democracy and allowing China to brag about giving Hong Kong some voice, when in reality that voice is muffled at best.

"What is the point of implementing universal suffrage if the territory is undemocratic?"