The creation of a new municipal body is back on the agenda. The report on the public consultation period has just been published. So far, the doubts surfacing at the beginning of this process have still to be clarified. The Basic Law is often invoked, but the supporting arguments are still missing.
The Basic Law touches briefly upon the matter. It says that municipal bodies may exist but that they cannot exercise political power. So, in essence, the drafters of the Basic Law were simply saying: have them if you want to, as long as they do not represent a competing centre of political power.
Should the local powers have wished, they might even have kept the previous arrangements, just removing their limited independent powers. Remember, at the time of the handover there were two municipal bodies in Macau, with some of its members directly elected.
Keeping those arrangements while removing the autonomous powers might be politically inconvenient or undesirable, but would not violate, it seems, the Basic Law. However, that was not the path chosen. Thus, the current Municipal Institute was created, taking over the assets and operational responsibilities of the pre-existing bodies (almost) entirely.
The proposed creation of the new body raises some perplexing issues, the first of which concerns the real need for a new institution. If there are justifiable changes to the remit and operational duties of the Municipal Institute, why not just do the required and appropriate changes in the law? Why the necessity of this sort of cosmetic operation whereby we pretend that the existing ‘municipal body without political power’ is somehow not the real thing, and we need a new one that is?
This commitment is puzzling. Does that imply that the current institutional arrangement is in violation of the Basic Law? That would be a startling conclusion, which would require sound reasoning that no-one has yet made. But if that is not the case, as would be hard to argue, what’s the point of the operation at all? No public statement as of today, to my knowledge, has addressed this issue.
The same might be said of the most substantive issue in that process: could the municipal bodies include elected members? In Hong Kong it is possible. Here it seems it is not, it appears, and the issue is avoided at all costs. Always invoking the Basic Law, of course.
*Economist and permanent contributor to MNA