Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong on Wednesday killed a motion to change the way the city’s leader is selected, in a setback to a controversial election reform package proposed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
The motion was one of two in the package, which the democratic camp had said it would vote against because it did not state when the former British colony would realize universal suffrage.
“The two motions do not lead us at all toward universal suffrage,” said lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan.
“In this era of democracy, we cannot see how Hong Kong people can be deprived of equality and one person, one vote.”
Despite widespread calls for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, highlighted on Dec. 4 by a protest march that included tens of thousands of people, Beijing has kept tight control over the pace of democratic reform in Hong Kong.
Currently, the chief executive is picked by a committee of 800 electors, and half of the legislature is popularly elected.
China, which re-gained control over Hong Kong in 1997, has been widely criticized in the wealthy financial hub for ruling out universal suffrage for the 2007 and 2008 elections and its refusal to say when general elections could be held.
After several hours of debate, the measure that would have doubled the number of college members to 1,600 in the 2007 election for the next chief executive, won 34 votes for and 24 against, with one abstention.
To pass, it needed at least 40 votes in favor. Tsang’s office had no immediate comment.
Following the vote, the legislature started debating the second part of Tsang’s reform plan, a measure that would add 10 members to the 60-seat Legislative Council, or Legco, for the 2008 election. Five of those seats would be directly elected.
As lawmakers debated the motions, a protester unfurled a large banner on a road bridge near the chamber that read “the people want democracy now”. By the evening, hundreds of people held a candle-light vigil outside the legislative council.
If, as expected, both reform proposals fail to pass, analysts say it would severely damage the standing of Tsang. The democrats would also be blamed for the failure.
“Such a scenario would be a lose-lose situation,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.
Tsang, squeezed between his political masters in Beijing and public opinion in Hong Kong, has been arguing that the reforms are a step towards full democracy and that they are the best he can offer. Hong Kong’s post-handover constitution, the Basic Law, says the government must advance toward democracy.
The Standard newspaper quoted sources in Beijing as saying Chinese leaders would give Tsang a strong show of support even if the reforms are rejected.
Still, some analysts say his political future is on the line.
“I don’t see how it couldn’t help but weaken arguments that might be made for him to get a second term,” said Michael DeGolyer, of Hong Kong Baptist University.
The democratic camp has been mostly united against the reforms, but the Tsang administration has been lobbying hard in recent weeks.
Whatever the result, Tsang is scheduled to travel to Beijing next week to meet Communist Party leaders.
If the proposals are both rejected, many in Hong Kong would feel that Beijing “still cannot resolve the political reform issue in a satisfactory manner”, Cheng said.