HK's public consultation on direct elections begins

HK's public consultation on direct elections begins

Hong Kong is taking its first official step on the road to striving for universal suffrage in 2017, in what is likely to be a long and fraught journey.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam on Wednesday launched a long-anticipated public consultation on constitutional reforms that will allow Hong Kongers to directly elect their Chief Executive in March 2017, and the Legislative Council in 2016.

It is the start of a process to formulate a proposal for a new political system that has to be acceptable to both Beijing and Hong Kong's pan-democrat camp in order to be passed.

Calling on the public and lawmakers to be "accommodating and pragmatic", Mrs Lam warned that failure to forge consensus and achieve one-man one-vote rule in accordance with the timetable will lead to governance challenges and affect the city's political, economic and social stability.

But the process is already shaping up to be a contentious one, given differing interpretations of how the new system should be formulated.

At its heart is the question of who will be allowed to run for election. The power of deciding rests with a group of gatekeepers - "a broadly representative nominating committee" - as stipulated in Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law.

The size and composition of this committee are thus a key issue up for debate.

Beijing is keen to ensure that the system will allow only those friendly to it to stand for election, with its officials saying Chief Executives must "ai guo ai gang" (love the country, love Hong Kong).

While this requirement is not set out in the consultation document launched, Mrs Lam said it is "understood", given that the Basic Law requires Hong Kong's leader to be accountable to Beijing.

Pan-democrats charge that this is not "genuine universal suffrage" and want the nominating panel scrapped. Said Democratic Party leader Emily Lau: "I am worried that not everyone with different political stances and opinions can participate."

Moderates are trying to find middle ground, to ensure at least a pan-democrat candidate, presenting "a real choice" for voters, will be eligible.

Both Beijing's approval and a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council are required to pass the reforms. Pan-democrats hold the veto power in the 70-seat legislature.

Much is at stake in ensuring that the reforms are realised. "We have obvious problems in governance now," said Hong Kong University political scientist Peter Cheung, pointing to how the current Chief Executive - who is selected by a small coterie of people - is often isolated without a popular mandate.

But given the uncompromising stance of the various camps, "Hong Kong is headed for a politically turbulent period", he predicted.

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