Enlarging the election committee voter base won't be enough

December 08, 2016 16:00
Woo Kwok-hing, who intends to run for Hong Kong's top job next year, has suggested that more people be involved in choosing the candidate selection panel. Photo: HKEJ

On Sunday, nearly 250,000 qualified voters will go to polling stations to pick their representatives for a 1,200-member-strong committee that will ultimately choose Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.

The exercise, which involves people and companies from 35 sub-sectors selecting their candidates for the Chief Executive Election Committee, has been criticized for being a "privilege" of the elite.

As the ordinary public is mostly shut out from the vote, the people that will make it to the panel won't be deemed as true representatives of society. 

That's the reason why locals have been fighting for a "one person one vote" system to choose their leader, rather than be represented by someone in the community to vote on their behalf.

"We want genuine universal suffrage" has been a rallying cry in the city, especially after the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Yet, authorities have refused to grant such right to the citizens.

As direct elections seem to be an unrealistic goal, some prominent figures are now trying to steer the debate toward making the election panel more reflective of public opinion. 

This can be done by enlarging the voter base for the 1,200-member committee, they say. 

Rather than have quarter-of-a-million people involved in choosing the nomination committee members, why not allow hundreds of thousands more to participate in the exercise?

By expanding the voter base, the election committee will become more representative of popular will and help soothe the public's concerns -- this is the argument. 

Among those echoing this line of thought is retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who is so far the only candidate to have openly declared his intention to run for the city's top job next year.

During a radio program Wednesday, Woo suggested that the voter base for the CE election committee could be enlarged to as much as 3 million in phases.

That will ensure that Hong Kong people can vote "indirectly" in the chief executive contest, while also enabling Beijing to continue a screening mechanism for CE hopefuls.

Woo said that if he gets the opportunity, he will initiate reform that will gradually expand the voter base for the election committee, potentially allowing 3 million people to vote by 2032.

As the voter base can include all registered voters in Hong Kong, it will amount to "indirect universal suffrage", he argued.

Woo said he shared the idea with the opposition camp. If the plan is agreed upon, there won't be any further need to fight for civic nomination of CE candidates, he said.

The retired judge believes the reform can bring various groups together and heal the divisions in society.

But he would be mistaken if he thinks that the plan, even if it materializes, will make Hong Kong people give up on their fight to choose their leader directly.  

An "indirect election" cannot be a substitute for "one person one vote" system that will allow locals to pick a leader on their own without any screening or "censorship" by outside forces such as Beijing.

While Woo's call for expanding the representative nature of the electoral committee is a good idea, the reform cannot be a replacement for Hong Kong people's right to nominate and elect their leader.

By putting forward the proposal at this juncture, Woo can be accused of trying to maintain the legitimacy of the small-circle election.

Moreover, it's really doubtful if Beijing will allow 3 million Hongkongers to participate in the selection of the election committee members.

The mainland leadership's main goal is to pack the 1,200-member committee with as many Beijing loyalists as possible, rather than turn it into a true representative body of Hong Kong people.

Let's not forget that in the new election committee, only 733 seats are available for contest. The remaining 467 seats are already filled by pro-Beijing loyalists or business tycoons without challenge from other candidates.

Against such backdrop, the opposition camp won't have much leeway, though they can try to boost their voice through strategic alliances.

In preparation for the 2017 battle, pro-democracy groups have indeed struck some partnerships, mostly involving professional segments such as accountants, engineers, lawyers and social workers.

The pro-democracy camp aims to win at least 300 seats on the election committee, which will be responsible for nomination and selection of candidates for the chief executive race.

A key objective is to block Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong's current leader, from getting re-nominated.

Given his negative net approval ratings, Leung will stand no chance if we have a free and fair democratic electoral regime without interference from external forces.

But the reality is that, given Beijing's tight control of the process, we'll have a candidate selection based on the mainland's preferences, rather than the committee members making their own choice.

As the committee will remain a rubber stamp, regardless of the voter base behind it, Hong Kong people cannot afford to give up on the fight for universal suffrage.

It won't be easy to convince Beijing to alter its stance, but that doesn't mean that we should accept any unfair arrangement or midway compromise. 

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EJ Insight writer