HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong on Friday passed an electoral reform package, winning over enough skeptical opposition lawmakers to back changes that could pave the way for universal suffrage in 2017 as promised by Beijing.
It was the first time Hong Kong’s legislature had passed major reforms to electoral arrangements since the city reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997. A previous attempt in 2005 was voted down by opposition democrats.
“This lays down a milestone in Hong Kong’s democratic development,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who called the deal a “historic moment.”
“Disputes and infighting over political reform have plagued our society for the past two decades ... it’s now clear that consensus and reform are possible,” Tsang told reporters.
The package caused a major rift among pro-democracy lawmakers, some of whom say it does not go far enough toward universal suffrage and deflates their demand for full-scale reform.
“This is the darkest day in Hong Kong’s democratic development,” yelled radical pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Chan, before storming out of the legislature. Chan was one of 12 pro-democracy lawmakers voting against the package.
Since 1997, the struggle for full democracy has been a central and divisive theme in local politics, pitting liberal advocates and democrats against Beijing’s Communist leaders.
But the new deal -- that sharply divided various pro-democracy factions -- could usher in a new era of warmer ties between moderate democrats and Beijing, analysts say.
“The passage of the reform proposal is the first time that the democrats have reached any kind of political agreement with Beijing,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Chinese University. “It’s a historic compromise and this can serve as a ... starting point or rapport between the two sides.”
After a marathon debate in the local 60-seat legislature stretching over three days, 46 lawmakers, including most members of Hong Kong’s main opposition Democratic Party, cast a final vote in support of the package which required a two thirds majority.
The chairman of the Democratic Party, Albert Ho, denied his party had sold out and said negotiations with Beijing officials that helped broker this compromise deal would continue.
“We hope more members of different democratic groupings can take part” in future talks with Chinese officials, Ho said.
Scores of protesters who had gathered outside the legislature honked on plastic trumpets and denounced the package, saying it was a lame one at best. Some gathered in the middle of a road and were dragged away by police officers swarming around them.
The reforms will expand the number of seats in the legislature to 70, of which 40 will be directly elected -- the first time a majority of seats will be returned by popular vote.
The rest are to be chosen by special interest groups, called functional constituencies, long dominated by pro-establishment and pro-Beijing forces.
An election committee that selects Hong Kong’s leader will be expanded from 800 to 1,200 members.
In 2007, after sustained pressure, Beijing finally laid out a timetable for full democracy, saying universal suffrage would be allowed in 2017 at the earliest. But many democrats do not take Beijing at its word.
Editing by Nick Macfie