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Asia

Hong Kong lawmakers set for crucial poll reform vote

Hong Kong's legislators are about to debate proposed reforms for the election of the city's chief executive. Experts fear a new wave of political turmoil and protests in the Chinese special administrative region.

On Wednesday, June 17, the 70-member Hong Kong Legislative Council is expected to start debating on controversial election reforms set to determine how the leader of the semi-autonomous Chinese city is elected in future.

The next election for the post of Chief Executive is due in 2017. Election reform has been an emotive issue in Hong Kong which already triggered massive street protests last year crippling economic activity in the financial hub.

Hong Kong has enjoyed considerable autonomy in economic and legal spheres since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. At the same time, China has ensured that the post of chief executive is always held by a politician loyal to Beijing. At present, the leader of Hong Kong is chosen by a pro-Beijing committee made up of 1,200 members.

Divergent interpretations

Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's constitution, envisages direct elections, although it fails to mention a specific point in time when these must be held.

According to Article 45 of the Basic Law, "the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People's Government."

China Demonstration für Demokratie in Hongkong

Hong Kong saw massive pro-democracy protests last year

"The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

Since 2007, calls for political reforms and full democracy granting universal and equal suffrage have been growing louder in the former British colony. But only at the end of August 2014 did the leadership in Beijing respond to the demands.

At the time, the National People's Congress - China's parliament - decided that Hong Kong's next leader would be elected by popular vote in 2017, but only after each candidate was approved by a majority of the 1,200-member election committee.

This move failed to satisfy the demands of the city's pro-democracy activists, resulting in sit-ins and other forms of protest over the following several months. However, the demonstrations failed to win any concessions from Beijing.

Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership cannot pass a new rule on the election of Hong Kong's chief executive by decree. Rather the law has to be approved by the city's Legislative Council with a two-thirds majority. Lawmakers are set to debate the issue starting Wednesday, June 17, and a vote is expected as early as Friday, June 19.

47 of the 70 legislators have to vote in favor of the rule for it to come into effect. But 27 lawmakers from the democracy camp have already indicated that they would vote against the proposition. That would defeat the bill, resulting in a status quo in Hong Kong.

Although this would not be a big issue for Beijing, the Chinese government is keen to see Hong Kong lawmakers vote for the rule given that a rejection would be a loss of face and a symbolic defeat for Beijing. China's leadership therefore has been pulling out all stops in its efforts to promote "patriotic" fervor among Hong Kong citizens.

Search for votes

At the end of May, lawmakers from the democratic camp met in Shenzhen with representatives from Beijing to exchange views. However, both sides failed to reach an agreement. Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, for instance, said Beijing couldn't possibly allow a "die-hard" democrat to be elected as Hong Kong's Chief Executive.

"Because if they are elected as chief executive, it will be a disaster for the country (China), it will be a disaster for Hong Kong," he said.

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the pro-Chinese head of the Legislative Council who normally refrains from voting, has even talked of resigning from his position so that he could cast his ballot in favor of Beijing's proposal. But even with him on board, four more votes from the pro-democracy camp would be needed for it to pass.

Pro-democracy camp's concerns

Hongkong Gebäude der Bank of China, Cheung Kong Center und HSBC

Hong Kong has enjoyed considerable autonomy in economic and legal spheres since its return to Chinese rule in 1997

The pro-democracy camp stresses that Beijing's decision at the end of August last year was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Basic Law. They argue that a pre-selection of election contestants for the office of chief executive violates the principle of "universal and equal suffrage."

It is worth pointing out that the decision leaves no room for further reform, not even allowing for the possibility of changes in the "actual situation," commentator Frank Ching wrote in Hong Kong newspaper "South China Morning Post."

Once the Legislative Council accepts the political reform package based on the Standing Committee decision, there will be no legal argument left for further improvement, argued Ching, adding that: "If Hong Kong agrees with Beijing that the ultimate aim has been achieved, the whole idea of 'gradual and orderly progress' falls away, since these are steps towards the ultimate aim."