Democratic Love-In

Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu took the opportunity of a Valentine's Day radio show to send out a message both bold and affectionate to other members of the pan democratic camp.

Under her leadership the party is not going to wait for the government's proposals on democratic reform to be published: rather it is going to get to work right away together with other like-minded political parties to spell out their own set of proposals for how to achieve universal suffrage.

This is good news on several fronts. First, because being constructive in this area is much more likely to secure positive results. Secondly, because an early start will provide adequate time for differences to be aired and accommodations reached. Thirdly, because it implies an end to the internecine warfare within the pan democratic camp which so weakened progressive forces during the last Legislative Council election. Last but by no means least, it will also challenge the government to sharpen its own thinking.

There are three sets of elections approaching: for LegCo in 2016; Chief Executive in 2017; and LegCo again in 2020. We need to think of them as the set of three close together fences in a show jumping round which calls for the highest degree of professionalism from both horse and rider.

The Central Government has indicated that we can have elections for the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017, and for our legislature after that (by implication, in 2020 at the earliest).

It is important to realise that this is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Hong Kong still needs to jump over all the fences, in the correct sequence, if our city is to have a clear round.

So we need to begin with the first fence, which means reaching agreement on the arrangements for the 2016 LegCo elections first.

Reform proposals need to strike the right balance: they must be achievable now, that is, a way must be found to secure the required two thirds majority in the legislature as currently constituted which means 47 votes. Proposals that are too radical will scare away too many middle of the road legislators. Proposals which are too timid will not attract pan democratic support, and will fail to provide sufficient momentum for the next two fences. Either way we won't reach the magic number.

The first question to be asked is whether to leave the present balance of geographic and functional constituencies as they are at 35 each, and seek to democratise purely by changes to the composition of the latter, or to begin to tilt the balance in favour of the former.

My reading of past community sentiments in this area is that there must be a decisive shift in favour of geographic constituencies or else public trust in the SAR and Central governments will be fatally weakened.

The shift does not have to be huge, but it must be discernible and send a clear message. There will be different views on numbers. I am going to dip a toe in difficult waters and suggest a change in the balance to 40:30.

Looking at the remaining functional constituencies, the five new super seats introduced last time seemed very popular, attracting many hundreds of thousands of votes. Their existence also emphasises the importance of building on district administration, as candidates must be serving members of District Councils. Let us double their number to 10.

We will now have 50 seats occupied by de facto directly elected members, enough to implement more reform next time round. But the changes which achieved this were not in themselves so wild as to raise concern.

Turning to the remaining 20 functional constituencies, we face probably the easiest question of all. Is there still a place in the 21st century for corporate voting? Of course not, and future historians looking back to this era will wonder how on earth the practice managed to endure so long.

So, only individuals should be eligible to vote, and it is not going too far to insist that there must be some improvement in the representativeness of the seats concerned by setting a minimum threshold for number of voters. Not being one for half measures, I am going to stick another toe in the water and suggest 50,000.

Just as in show jumping, there is a skill in clearing a set of three close fences: the horse and rider must approach at exactly the right speed so they clear each fence comfortably without breaking stride.

The outline above provides the basis for a reform package which satisfies the twin tests of achievability now while providing a firm basis for further reform later.

If Ms Eu and her colleagues get this wrong, history will not look kindly upon them. But if they get it right, then there will be Valentine's Day roses for many years to come.