HONG KONG -- The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in its recent decision has sketched out a broad framework for the election of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by universal suffrage in 2017. Many among us are disappointed that the framework is not as open and flexible as one may have wished. However, the outcome was not totally unexpected, given that any arrangements made for the election of the CE by universal suffrage must comply with the legal requirements of the Hong Kong Basic Law.
Whatever shortcomings that the NPC-approved framework may have, it is still an important step forward. The alternative is to continue the election of the CE by the Election Committee in 2017, which no one wants to see happen. The NPC Standing Committee decision has actually not specified the details of implementation, leaving plenty of decisions to be made and work to be done locally, before universal suffrage can be implemented and realized. After all, "the devil is in the details." It is therefore time for the people of Hong Kong, regardless of their political persuasion, to put aside their differences and work together to make the election of the CE of the HKSAR by universal suffrage a reality in 2017.
There is little time to waste as there are three more steps to go before the election of the CE by universal suffrage can take place -- and each step will take time. The NPC Standing Committee decision is supposed to apply to the CE elections by universal suffrage in Hong Kong beginning with 2017. However, if the CE election by universal suffrage fails to be implemented in 2017, it will be necessary to start the five-step process all over again to make possible the CE election by universal suffrage in 2022. It does not appear that waiting until 2022 to implement the CE election by universal suffrage will necessarily improve the terms, since, in particular, it will depend on the prevailing conditions then. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity to implement universal suffrage in 2017, not only will we continue with the existing Election Committee system, but we shall further delay the introduction of the election of the Legislative Council (LegCo) by universal suffrage to 2024 or beyond. This is definitely the time to move forward.
The Selection of the Members of the Nominating Committee
The NPC decision specifies that the size and composition of the CE Nominating Committee and the method of selection of its members should essentially follow the principles and practices of the existing Election Committee. This means major changes are not likely to be possible for the 2017 CE election. However, marginal changes are still possible, for example, the abolition of corporate voting in some of the functional constituencies. In the future, looking beyond 2017, one of the ways in which the composition of the Nominating Committee may change gradually is when more and more of its ex-officio members, for example, the members of the LegCo and the district councils, are elected by universal suffrage.
The Threshold for Becoming a Nominee Before the Nominating Committee
It makes practical sense and is probably the easiest way to achieve a consensus among us to maintain the requirement of open endorsement by at least one-eighth of the members of the Nominating Committee, analogous to the requirement of the existing Election Committee, for a person to become a nominee as a candidate for the CE. Each member of the Nominating Committee can openly endorse only one nominee, but is not required to endorse any. This will mean that in principle, it is possible to have up to eight nominees before the Nominating Committee, which will then select from among them by democratic procedures two to three CE candidates for election by universal suffrage. In actual practice, it is unlikely to have eight nominees but certainly possible to have more than three nominees, including at least one nominee supported by the Pan-Democrats. If a ceiling is imposed on the total number of endorsements that a nominee can round up, say, also at one-eighth of the membership of the Nominating Committee, it is likely to lead to more nominees.
The Procedures for the Nominating Committee to Nominate CE Candidates
Analogous to the voting procedure of the Election Committee, voting of the Nominating Committee on the nominees should be conducted by secret ballots. Each nominee will come up for a vote by the entire membership of the Nominating Committee. He or she must obtain more than half of the votes of the members of the Nominating Committee (say, 601 affirmative votes based on a Nominating Committee of 1,200 members) to become a CE candidate. However, in the event that more than three nominees have received more than half of the votes, which is a possible outcome given the proposed threshold of endorsement by one-eighth of the members for a person to become a nominee, the three nominees with the highest number of affirmative votes will become the CE candidates. It is possible at some future date that the restriction of up to three CE candidates may be relaxed as the total number of CE candidates will always be limited by the threshold required for becoming a nominee. Also, under this system, there is no a priori reason why a nominee supported by the Pan-Democrats cannot become one of the candidates if the platform of this person is sufficiently appealing and credible.
The Election will be Genuinely Competitive
The election of the CE by universal suffrage, with the candidates selected by a Nominating Committee, will be quite competitive. This is because the candidates will have to compete for the votes from among more than five million eligible voters. We may recall how competitive the last CE election turned out to be within the Election Committee, even though only 1,200 people had the vote. Election of the CE by universal suffrage will be many times more competitive as the candidates try to differentiate their respective platforms to compete for the votes of the electorate. For a voter, even if his or her ideal nominee fails to become a CE candidate, he or she will still have the chance of voting for a candidate with the closest similarity to his or her ideal candidate in terms of ideology and platform. The vote of every person will count.
Voting Arrangements for Electing the CE by Universal Suffrage
The Election Committee has in the past followed a rule that requires the winner of an election for the CE to receive the affirmative votes of more than half of its members, that is, 601 out of 1,200. We believe this is a good principle that should be extended to require that the CE elected by universal suffrage must also receive half of the total votes cast in that election (including valid ballots in which the voters abstain from voting for any of the candidates, in effect, voting for "none of the above"). Thus, for example, if there were three candidates, and none of them receive more than half of the total votes cast, there will be a run-off election between the candidates with the two highest numbers of votes. The run-off election is a standard arrangement in many countries, for example, France, in which the chief executive or president is directly elected by universal suffrage. The purpose of a run-off election is to guard against the possibility of a fringe or extremist candidate being elected under a "first-past-the-post" rule, which may not be in the best interests of the vast majority of the people in the country or region. Moreover, it also ensures that whoever ultimately wins the election will have had the opportunity to modify his or her platform before the run-off election to better reflect the mainstream aspirations and views of the electorate so as to attract the votes of voters who have not voted for him or her in the first round. In any case, it will help ensure that the winner of the election will not have extreme positions on either end of the political spectrum.
A notable exception to the run-off arrangement is the presidential election in Taiwan, in which the "first-past-the-post" rule is used. Under this rule, in the case of three candidates, the one with 34 percent of the votes cast will become the winner if the other two candidates receive 33 percent each of the votes cast. This is similar to the situation in the 2000 election in Taiwan, in which Chen Shui-bian won the election with less than 40 percent of the total votes cast. If there had been a run-off election between Chen and James Soong, the candidate with the second highest vote, Chen would probably not have been elected. Thus, it is important for Hong Kong to be prepared to have a run-off election if necessary. If nothing else, it would enable the elected CE to have a reasonable claim of a mandate from the voters.
In a run-off election, or in an election with only two candidates, if neither of the candidates have platforms that are attractive enough, it is possible that neither one wins more than half of the total votes cast, including valid ballots of abstention. In that case, it will be necessary to start the entire nomination and election process all over again. The Nomination Committee will have to be reconvened to select new candidates for a new election. Thus, ultimately, the electorate can still have the power to reject truly unpopular candidates. However, since it is not in anyone's interests to have a "hung" CE election, the Nominating Committee must exercise due care in its selection of the candidates so as to avoid this possibility.
Keep the Glass Half Full
If we reject a half-full glass as a half-empty glass, the glass will remain empty. If we accept a half-full glass, there is the possibility that it may become fuller in time. No electoral system in the world is perfect, including that of the United States, especially at the very beginning. Let us take the first step in making the half-full glass fuller! Let us move forward on election of the CE by universal suffrage in 2017!
Lawrence J. Lau is an economist and Ayesha Macpherson Lau is a certified public accountant. The opinions expressed herein are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of organizations with which they are affiliated.
This piece also appeared in China-US Focus.