SCMP Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Election law allows Tung to 'appoint' successor

Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung was practically reduced to a laughing stock last week when he tried to justify the Government's decision to hold the next Chief Executive election on a working Thursday - saying many of the approximately 800-member Election Committee might be playing golf at the weekend.
Under the Chief Executive Election Bill, incumbent Tung Chee-hwa is entitled to pick any date within six months before his current term of office expires. But the Government does not seem inclined to conduct any extensive public consultation on this or any other measure in the bill. In contrast to the standard practice for proposed legislation, officials did not even bother to explain how they would seek public views on the draft law in the Government's brief to the Legislative Council. The anomaly was only pointed out in the Legco Service Division's own report to legislators.
While moving the second reading of the bill in March, Mr Suen repeatedly stressed the need to take account of the "actual situation" in the local political arena. And some of the proposed provisions are so lop-sided that they appear to have been written to perpetuate Mr Tung's reign.
Indeed the "actual situation" is that Mr Tung's re-election is so secure that he is unlikely to face any heavyweight challenger. Black-belts within pro-Beijing circles who stand a serious chance of succeeding Mr Tung would rather lie low for five more years until the 2007 contest.
As long as Mr Tung, who has been explicitly endorsed by the Chinese leaders, is in the ring, it will be difficult for others to even join the fight. Under the new rules, their nominators will have to reveal their identities, so making it even harder to find the necessary 100 sponsors from among the approximately 800 Election Committee members.
Even in the unlikely event that Mr Tung was to step down, the bill would still enable him to usher in a successor of his own choosing. Clause 19 deals with the "withdrawal of candidature". It states: "A candidate may withdraw his candidature at any time before 5pm on the last working day before the polling date." This deceptively terse provision represents a major departure from the previous official stance on whether nominees should be allowed to drop out of an election.
This topic was first put on the public agenda last September because of an absurdity arising from Gary Cheng Kai-nam's case. The former Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong legislator was bound by law to continue at the top of his party's ticket in the Legco elections for the Hong Kong Island constituency, even after he was engulfed in a scandal over his failure to disclose business links and the passing of a confidential document to a business contact. He was subsequently elected due to the list vote system and a by-election had to be called when, as expected, Mr Cheng gave up his seat before assuming office.
Amendments to correct this anomaly are expected to be put in place before the next Legco polls in 2004, but are only supposed to be introduced after a thorough public debate. However, officials seem to have jumped the gun in seeking to install such an "escape route" for the Chief Executive contenders.
In theory, Mr Tung could now discreetly choose a hand-picked successor. This protege would stand against him, supposedly as an also-run candidate. The mere fact that Mr Tung is in the race should be enough to ward off any other serious aspirants. But using Clause 19, Mr Tung could then withdraw his candidature at the last minute, making sure his protege is the only nominee left in the race.
Andy Ho ( ) is a political commentator.