SHANGHAI -- The Hong Kong government on Wednesday announced its long-awaited and highly controversial blueprint for the city’s 2017 leadership election, prompting a walkout by legislators from the ‘Pan Democrat’ opposition camp, who say the proposals do not amount to the genuine universal suffrage Beijing had promised Hong Kong.
The package, announced by Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, broadly sticks to the model proposed by the Chinese government last year, which requires candidates for the proposed one-person one-vote election to first be approved by a committee expected to be dominated by Beijing loyalists. In a small concession to the public anger, which led to the ‘Umbrella Movement’ protests against the plan last autumn, Lam said each member of the 1,200-strong nominating committee would be allowed to propose one potential candidate. Up to 10 of these people would then be considered as possible candidates for the election, provided they had received support from at least 10 percent of the committee’s members.
However, Lam offered no concessions on Beijing’s proposal that only two or three candidates would eventually be permitted to stand for election when it came to a public vote -- and each would require the support of at least half the nominating committee. She also appeared to reject calls for broadening the composition of the committee, which will be made up of 300 representatives from each of four sectors, representing Hong Kong’s business, professional, political, and social and religious spheres.
After Lam’s announcement, 17 legislators from the Pan Democrat camp, a grouping of 27 members of Hong Kong’s legislative council who have vowed to oppose the package, walked out of the chamber in protest, shouting slogans.
Speaking before the legislative session, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (C.Y. Leung), urged the Pan Democrats, who have the power to veto the blueprint, to support the proposals. Leung said it was “the wish of the people of Hong Kong” to have one-person one-vote, for the first time in a leadership election in the city, in 2017.
However, he also repeated warnings that if the plan was voted down, Hong Kong’s reform process would be halted. Officials have said previously that if the package is not passed, the 2017 election will be conducted by the original rules, whereby the chief executive was directly selected by a majority of the Beijing-backed committee’s 1,200 members, without a public vote. [Leung himself is still widely known by the nickname '689,' which refers to the number of committee members who selected him.] Officials have also warned that plans to extend one-person one-vote to next year’s legislative elections would also be scrapped if the reforms were rejected.
Leung said that if Hong Kong did not take its chance now, it could be years before there was another step forward on electoral reform. Lam has vowed to keep fighting until the “last minute” to persuade some of the Pan Democrats to back the reforms, ahead of the legislature’s vote on the reform package, expected in June. The government is using the slogan “Pocket it first” to promote the reform package, and Lam on Wednesday sought to reassure Pan Democrats that if they accepted the package, they will be starting a process that could see further reform in future. It was, she said, a “golden opportunity.”
It would only take four Pan Democrats to change sides to give the government the two-thirds majority of the 70-member council it requires to pass the bill. And there has been speculation, including from members of Hong Kong’s student movement, which led the protests last year, that Beijing may make last-minute concessions on other aspects of future political reform to win over a few of the Pan Democrats. The South China Morning Post also quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as calling on the Pan Democrats to accept the package, saying the nominating committee would not be able to ignore any popular potential candidate for chief executive, whatever his or her political opinions.
Pro-Beijing politicians this week called on the Chinese central government to hold talks with Pan Democrats, in an attempt to win their support. However, talks last week between Lam and Pan Democratic legislators did not lead to any obvious progress. Some opponents of the package have said that they would prefer to see a reversion to the old, undemocratic rules, rather than accept what they have described as a “sham” exercise in universal suffrage. Civic Party legislator Claudia Mo told International Business Times recently that holding a public vote based on Beijng’s rules would convey an undeserved veneer of legitimacy on whoever won the election.
“Whoever was hand-picked by Beijing and got his million plus votes could claim he’d got the people’s mandate, and could do whatever he wanted, or rather whatever he was told by Beijing to do – that would be even worse,” Mo said.
The Hong Kong Progressive Lawyers’ Group, meanwhile, warned on Wednesday that accepting the package would lead the government to abandon any more meaningful political reforms in future. And Civic Party leader Alan Leong said after Wednesday’s announcement that he would lead a public campaign to ensure the package was rejected.
There have also been warnings that if any of the Pan Democrats changed sides, there were likely to be renewed street protests. The South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong Federation of Students' leader Nathan Law warned that his group could launch an "occupy the legislature" campaign if any Pan Democrats changed their minds and backed the reform package.
However, City University of Hong Kong political scientist James Sung told the paper that the Pan Democratic camp would not want further street protests, as these would risk alienating voters ahead of district council elections later this year, and legislative elections next year.
Leung reiterated before the vote that there was no question of Beijing changing its mind on the proposals. Pro-establishment legislator Regina Ip told IBTimes recently that the Chinese government believes it has made real concessions by allowing a public vote for the post of chief executive, even if the choice of candidates is limited.
Polls show that public opinion is deeply divided on the reform package, with some polls suggesting that over 40 percent of voters support accepting it, while more than 40 percent oppose it. Analysts say it’s a sign that last year’s 12 weeks of protest left Hong Kong society more polarized than ever.
China’s Xinhua News Agency said on Wednesday that the reform package was "legal, feasible, rational and practical," and Chinese media reports highlighted the presence of a group of mainly elderly demonstrators outside the legislative council today, with banners supporting the reform package. With demonstration and counter-demonstration a common part of political life in Hong Kong, some observers are predicting a tense couple of months in the city in the run-up to the legislature’s vote on the package.