Numbers Game

I have some bad news for fans of the so-called "organisational nomination" or "collective nomination" idea outlined in the consultation document on political reform: some interpretations of it would be a breach of the Basic Law.

I will explain why in a moment, but I want to deal first with the hint that perhaps a way needs to be found to keep the number of Chief Executive candidates in the range of 2 – 4 persons.

There is no need for any new process or procedure to achieve this outcome as the present arrangements for nomination – requiring a candidate to secure the support of at least one eighth (or 12 and a half per cent) of the members of the Election Committee – is virtually guaranteed to produce not less than two and not more than four candidates, in fact more likely three.

The reasons for this confidence are a combination of political common sense, actual experience, and mathematics.

Theoretically if the existing threshold were carried over into the Nominating Committee there could be as many as eight candidates, each with precisely one eighth support. But as we know from past elections, no candidate sets out to secure the support of the bare minimum number of delegates. Everyone sets out to gain as many supporters as possible. This has the twin advantages of squeezing out potential support for other candidates, and also presenting yourself as "the popular choice".

Inevitably, then, the front runners are going to be working flat out to get the committed pledges of thirty per cent or more. If three of them were to do so then obviously there would not be enough members left to support a fourth candidate.

More likely, perhaps, only two candidates would score really big, with a third (in present circumstances, the pan democrat) just getting over the minimum. There would also be some potential candidates who put their names forward but fail to secure the minimum number.

That would pretty much absorb all the members eligible to vote.

We seem to be moving in the direction of the present Election Committee, after some amendment, morphing into the new Nominating Committee.

A number of suggestions have been mooted for reforming the committee in the process. Perhaps the easiest to understand is the most simple: adding all District Councillors to it, thereby boosting the total number of members from around 1,200 to some 1,700.

That sounds plausible, and vaguely democratic without being revolutionary. But provided we leave the percentages alone then there is no change to the fact that the number of candidates to emerge from the nomination process is almost certain to be in the range of 2 – 4.

On top of issues like total number of members and composition comes an additional suggestion on procedure: the idea has been floated that the Nominating Committee should endorse the entire slate of candidates, viz, put forward a list of three or four names endorsed by the majority, one of whom would then be elected by universal suffrage.

This idea has been attacked by some as a way of allowing Beijing to exclude candidates of whom it did not approve.

There is also a more fundamental objection. Hong Kong people are repeatedly urged in the consultation document to adhere to the principle of "gradual and orderly progress", words lifted verbatim from Article 45 of the Basic Law.

But requiring candidates to get the support of over 50% of the members of the Nominating Committee (which is one interpretation of "collective nomination") instead of just 12.5% is not gradual or orderly, it is sudden and will cause chaos. And as it would be a step backwards rather than forwards, it is not progress either.

If, despite it being such a clear breach of the Basic Law, the idea of "organisational nomination" in this sense continues to be promoted, then the pan democrats will find a perfect countermeasure.

It won't matter that the idea of civic nomination has been ruled out. We live in an age of social media. The democrats will simply produce a candidate and 100,000 or more supporting emails or "Likes" on Facebook, and challenge the Nominating Committee not to allow that person's name to go forward.

Two can play the numbers game.