Government hope springs eternal. Ronny Tong would not be turned – or would he? (Photo: Ronny Tong’s FB page)
Up the flagpole…
First it was Albert Chen Hung-yee (陳弘毅), University of Hong Kong law professor, who floated the idea of “guarding the back door by casting a blank vote (白票守尾門)” to try to break the deadlock over political reform . Under the proposed rule, voters would be given a “None of the above” choice in the 2017 election for the chief executive, effectively giving them the right to say no to unpopular candidates on the ballot paper. The de facto veto idea has drawn flak from all sides of the political spectrum. It ended nowhere.
In an uncoordinated attempt, Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah (湯家驊 GC-NT East, Civic Party) has promised to back the 2017 universal suffrage bill if Beijing agreed to abolish functional constituency seats in the 2020 Legislative Council election. He said he would lobby pan-democrat legislators for backing the reform bill if such a promise was made. But like Albert Chen’s initiative, Ronny Tong’s compromise deal looks set to be mere wishful thinking. The chance of consent from Beijing and the vested interests in Hong Kong over full universal suffrage for the 2020 Legislative Council is near zero.
Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong (林煥光) said it would be difficult for Beijing to make a commitment to the abolition of functional constituency seats now. Basic Law Committee vice-chairwoman Elsie Leung Oi-sie (梁愛詩) has dismissed the idea as unrealistic. Asked about the idea, an influential lawmaker representing a major business constituency told me: “Impossible.” The pan-democratic camp has reacted coolly to Tong’s idea, insisting that Beijing should drop the parameters for the 2017 universal suffrage election decreed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31, or the so-called 8.31 decision.
On Monday, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the current government could not give any undertaking on the electoral arrangements for the 2020 Legco. Hong Kong people, he said, could only choose between the 8.31 blueprint and “marching on the same spot”, meaning no change to the present 1,200-member Election Committee system.
Leung has sought to dash any hopes that Beijing would reverse the 8.31 decision in the face of a vow by the pan-democratic legislators to vote down the reform bill when it is due to be tabled for its passage in summer. Nor did he give any clue the central authorities would make any substantive concessions on the democrats’ demand for universal suffrage in the next few months to help seek their support for the electoral bill.
Almost one month after the second round of consultation has begun, there are no signs the 2017 universal suffrage bill could get enough votes for it to be passed into law.
Electoral College? More pre-candidate candidates? No way
A well-placed source in the Leung team said privately that the pan-democrats have shown no interest to even discuss two possible areas where they could offer something. They are the composition of the 1,200-member nominating committee and the entry threshold of contestants before they become formal candidates for the chief executive race.
“Putting aside the conspiracy theory, pressure for some pan-democrats, in particular those with no party affiliations, to make a U-turn seems to be growing.”
The government, said the source, was prepared to accept changes to the composition of the nominating body such as reducing the number of seats for the agricultural and fisheries sector, which now holds 60 votes in the election committee. Officials also genuinely believe a low entry threshold would give a real chance for pan-democrats’ hopefuls to join election campaign for public support in the race for a ticket to the popular vote. Under the 8.31 decision, the number of candidates has been fixed at 2 or 3.
The source said the government might also consider giving a clear statement when the bill is put to Legco that the electoral arrangements for the chief executive could be further amended in accordance with the Basic Law and NPC rules. Doing so could help allay fears among the pan-democrats that the 2017 universal suffrage system would be the endgame and there will still be plenty of room for further democratisation of the system. Pan-democrats have good reasons to be doubtful, nevertheless. The so-called concessions were made simply because of the fact that the Basic Law and NPC Standing Committee’s resolutions have provided room for such changes.
Admitting that the room for concession is limited, the source said the government is holding out hopes public opinion could be the game-changer. Officials claimed polls conducted by the Central Policy Unit showed over 50 percent of respondents said legislators should approve the electoral package proposed by the government, screening included.. But according to a poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post at the end of January 46 percent of the 907 respondents backed lawmakers to vote down the government proposals. 41.7 percent want them to pass the package. The Post survey’s findings are similar to other independent polls.
Analysts say pan-democrats are not likely to change their stance even if 60 percent of respondents in polls back the government bill. The source said the government would mount a massive campaign to rally public support at a later stage.
Political Suicide or Reputation Legicide
On its face, the chance of a passage of the government package is slim. But privately, some core Leung team members are said to remain cautiously optimistic. One rumour widely circulated in political circles is that the Mainland authorities have held “scandalous” information unfavorable to some pan-democrat lawmakers who would, as a result of blackmail, have no choice but to back the reform blueprint. Putting aside the conspiracy theory, pressure for some pan-democrats, in particular those with no party affiliations, to make a U-turn seems to be growing.
“The political conundrum faced by moderates like Mok and Tong reflects the complex dynamics in the final round of tussle over the political reform.”
Charles Mok Nai-kwong (莫乃光), lawmaker representing the IT sector, acted swiftly to clear the air after he was said to be prepared to compromise if functional constituency seats are to be abolished. He said he would still reject the 8.31 decision, but added he was open to dialogue with the central government.
The political conundrum faced by moderates like Mok and Tong reflects the complex dynamics in the final round of tussle over the political reform. Although the pan-democrats’ bloc opposition against the package remains solid, fissures have begun to surface. They could turn into cracks when circumstances change and that pressure from all sides grows. The lower-than-expected turnout of the February 1 pro-democracy rally (Expected: 50,000, actual turnout: 13,000) says something about the Post-Occupy mood among pro-democracy supporters.
In reference to the post-Occupy Central scene in Hong Kong, Vice President Li Yuanchao(李源潮) has reportedly said recently “the really interesting part of the show is still to come.” He did not elaborate. When it comes to the finale of the political reform show, more drama looks certain when the time of passage draws closer.