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Hong Kong needs slow electoral change, not no electoral change

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In Brief

The Hong Kong government’s election reform proposal will theoretically allow for greater flexibility and competition for the 2017 race for Chief Executive. But pan-democratic lawmakers are vowing to veto the proposal, threatening the result and ultimately the 2017 ‘one person one vote’ election.


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On 22 April 2015, the Hong Kong government put forward its proposal to the Legislative Council on selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage. The government appealed to the legislature — particularly to the pan-democrats — to vote for the new election initiative. It would allow over five million people to choose from a selection of prenominated leaders.

Nominating procedures will be divided into two parts: the members’ recommendation stage and the committee nomination stage. Under the members’ recommendation stage, any person who gets at least 120 Nominating Committee votes (out of 1200) can seek to run in the Chief Executive race. No candidate is allowed more than 240 votes from the Nominating Committee. This ensures at least five, and at most 10, people can seek nomination.

Out of the initial pool of 5–10 candidates, the Nominating Committee will select the final two to three candidates in the ‘committee nomination’ stage. Each member must vote for at least two candidates but can vote for all of them. The two or three people supported by more than half of the members and with the highest votes will become official candidates for the election.

But there are at least three main obstacles in the nomination proposal. There is a continuing erosion of trust between the government and the pro-democracy camp. This will cut off any form of serious dialogue or negotiations moving forward. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has already stated that the government will not cave in to any demands, stating that there is no room for compromise.

The administration feels that the pro-democrats are not giving enough thought and understanding for the proposed change. But pro-democrats feel that the changes proposed are piecemeal ‘fake’ alterations. Joshua Wong, the student leader who became synonymous with the Umbrella Revolution, has already dismissed the reform package. He has vowed to conduct street protests the weekend after the proposed package is announced. The unyielding positions of both camps will, ultimately, have a negative effect for governance in Hong Kong.

Beijing had largely adopted a hands-off approach during the Umbrella Revolution, but it will lend greater visible support to pro-Beijing elements in Hong Kong this time around. China’s Vice President Li Yuanchao has stated that he hopes people in the ‘patriotic camp’ can urge citizens to support the government’s electoral reform package. The pro-Beijing camp is not ready to let the pro-democracy camp seize the discourse on ‘democracy’ entirely. Lessons have been learnt from the previous Occupy Central protests. The pro-Beijing camp will be better organised, disciplined and sophisticated in their dispute against the pro-democracy activists.

The prospects of more violence cannot be ruled out in the lead-up to voting for the election reform proposal in the Legislative Council. As positions gets more entrenched and the rhetoric from both camps gets ratcheted up, the frustration in both camps could spill over. After the proposed reforms were announced, scuffles outside the legislature broke out as pro-democracy protesters faced off against pro-Beijing demonstrators.

Vice President Li Yuanchao has called for Hong Kong to grasp the ‘historic opportunity’ and take a positive, rational and pragmatic attitude to promote the city’s democratic path. While this may be exaggerated and a little self-serving, there is a large degree of sense to his words.

While the concerns of the pro-democrats about the control of the elections are valid, their protests have seriously strained Hong Kong society. It would be irresponsible of them not to (at the very least) look seriously at the reform package proposed. Moreover, they have not managed to propose any reasonable or realistic alternative that would be acceptable to the leaders in Beijing.

If pan-democrats successfully disrupt and remove the election reform proposal, they would have a hollow victory. It would mean adhering to the current electoral system — a far worse system than the proposed reforms. They would be disingenuous to claim wide public support for their actions. Several polls show that Hong Kong society is split down the middle. If not that, other polls indicate a greater willingness by the Hong Kong people to accept the proposed reforms.

It is clear that Beijing will not give any concession whatsoever to the demands of the students. Thinking pragmatically and not over-idealistically is the key to seeing any sort of progress. Rather than take an unrealistic all-or-nothing approach, the pro-democracy camp should accept and make small incremental changes over a prolonged period of time.

Dylan Loh Ming Hui is a research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. A version of this article first appeared here in RSIS Commentaries.

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