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Despite government vows to make universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive poll happen in the final stage of political reform battle, there are no signs of a reversal of stance of at least four pan-Democratic lawmakers that could change the fate of the electoral blueprint. Polls published after the Government released the 2017 electoral plan on April 22 show opinions remain sharply divided with the support for the package only around half of the respondents.

Polling polling polling

According to a rolling poll commissioned by TVB, 50.9 per cent of 1,112 respondents interviewed from Thursday (23) to Sunday (26) said the Legislative Council should pass the government’s blueprint. 37.9 per cent wanted it voted down. In another rolling poll by Cable TV and announced on Friday, 49 per cent of 505 respondents backed the package and 38 per cent objected to it.

Another rolling poll, to be repeated by three universities until the Legco vote, found 47 per cent support the proposal. 38 per cent are against it. Results published by NOW TV, one of the sponsors, on April 28 found over half of respondents who are below the age of 30 opposed. A similar percentage of respondents who have tertiary or university education wanted the proposal be voted down.

But the polls won’t matter if the pan-Dem legislators will not budge. Barring unexpected developments, the chance of the passage of the blueprint by the legislators before their current session ends in July remains slim to none.

Low threshold,  low expectations

As widely reported in the media, the government has set a “low threshold” for aspirants to enter the primary of nomination. An aspirant will qualify to pass through the primary to the second round if he or she obtains 120 votes in the 1,200-member nominating committee (NC).

The only surprise comes from the rules for picking the final candidates in a “one person, one vote” ballot, whose number has been capped at two to three in the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on August 31, dubbed as “8.31” decision.

“In view of the fact the pan-Democratic camp controls about 200 votes …it looks certain the pan-democrats will have enough votes to enter the primary race.”

Under the so-called “2 + N” rules, each NC member must select minimum two aspirants, or their ballot will be considered invalid.  They can pick more – as many as all other aspirants in the primary in a secret ballot. Only the top two to three could become candidates and must obtain more than 50 per cent support in a 1,200-member nominating committee. THe vote will be a secret ballot.

Mrs Lam has argued the voting rules have increased the chances for pan-Democratic aspirants to become candidates. In view of the fact the pan-Democratic camp controls about 200 votes in the 1,200-member Election Committee in 2012 and that the 2017 nominating body is expected to be similar in composition, it looks certain the pan-democrats will have enough votes to enter the primary race.

On deaf ears since 8.31

Judging from the polls published since April 22, Executive Council Convenor Lam Woon-kwong is probably right when he recently said many people have made up their mind on the electoral proposal. His view has been shared by political pundits. Indeed, more than eight months after the “8.31” decision was decreed, the central and Hong Kong government have not yet succeeded in securing strong majority support from the public, for say, over 60 per cent, for it.

There are three major reasons.

First, the composition of the nominating committee and the “over 50 per cent” threshold mean aspirants without the blessing of Beijing may only remain aspirants, not candidates. The newly-proposed “2 + N” arrangement will not alter that. Analysts say Beijing will be able to control outright 300 to 400 votes in the NC, coming mainly from pro-Beijing bodies and sectors such as Federation of Trade Unions and rural and agricultural and fisheries sector. It could also influence another 300 to 400 NC members. 600 to 800 votes could therefore be counted on not to support the ‘wrong’ candidate.

Second, Beijing and Hong Kong officials have failed to convince doubters the so-called “pocket-it-first” reform is just the first step, to be followed by more steps to democratise the electoral arrangements. Democracy supporters fear the “8.31” decision would end up as the final destination of the city’s universal suffrage.

“democrats are hostile elements Beijing must eliminate in the nomination and screening process.”

Remarks made by Carrie Lam on April 22 that the passage of the electoral blueprint means the provision on universal suffrage under Basic Law Article 45 has been implemented have deepened fears among doubters and cynics the 2017 blueprint is the beginning and also the end of universal suffrage. Rejecting it, they argued, would put pressure on Beijing for it to come up with a more democratic package for it to complete the unfulfilled task under Article 45.

Third, the stakes of the political reform row have been risen to the high plane of “one country, two systems,” further complicating the dispute and doubling the difficulty for consensus-building. Many Hongkongers see universal suffrage as the right to elect their leader to run the city in a Hong Kong-style election which is fair, just and transparent. Beijing sees it as a battle for the right to govern (管治權之爭) wherein they must have a veto to bar anyone who poses a threat to national security and interests from becoming the Chief Executive.

One country!

Defining the city’s universal suffrage row as a battle in defence of integrity of “one country,” Beijing sees the demands of the pan-democrats as an attempt to seize power. To them, the democrats are hostile elements they must eliminate in the nomination and screening process at the NC. Many Hong Kong people, in particular the pan-democrats, see universal suffrage as a fight not just for democracy, but their dignity and free will. Accepting the “pocket-it-first” plan is tantamount giving up on Hong Kong, its values and  its systems.

Two systems!

Chinese University sociologist Professor Chan Kin-man, one of the three Occupy Central organisers, wrote in Ming Pao on April 28 the passage of the proposal would deal a body blow to the will of civil society and the belief of “self-autonomy of fate”. To say no to the blueprint is to stop Beijing from imposing her will on the Special Administrative Region, he said. “This is not just about political reform, it is about the power balance under ‘one country, two systems’.”

Lam Hang-chi, Hong Kong Economic Journal founder, said in his regular column on April 28: “(Hong Kong people) must give a resounding no to the blueprint. Although we may not be able to stop it from happening, we are being honest to ourselves and have opted us out from the history of “successful implementation” of universal suffrage.

“(Hong Kong people) must give a resounding no to the blueprint.”

Lam Hang-chi, HKEJ founder, April 28

Both Chan and Lam have spoken the minds of many in the minority 35-40 percent of the populace in polls, who say no to the proposal. NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang has described the 2017 electoral proposal a “hard mission” for Beijing in 2015, which is being interpreted as meaning it is job that must be done. It is no therefore coincidence that the Government has chosen “2017: Make it happen” as the slogan for the final stage of reform battle. The original version in Chinese “2017: 一定要得” carries a stronger “must do” meaning.

Even if proposal passes –  a big if –  Beijing will have to pay a huge price in the city’s stability and harmony and, importantly, the balance of the “one country, two systems” framework.