HONG KONG — HONG KONG - Fearing a setback in elections next year, the leaders of the main pro-Beijing political party here called yesterday for the government to delay internal-security legislation by more than a year.
The step was especially surprising because the Beijing-controlled newspaper China Daily declared in an editorial this week that the legislation must be enacted "as soon as possible."
Huge street demonstrations last month and the defection of key political allies had already forced Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, to retreat from his original insistence that the bill be passed before the lawmakers' summer recess.
Tung's administration is preparing to issue a so-called consultation document next month, seeking the public's views on how to make the proposed laws against sedition, subversion, secession and treason more acceptable.
Yesterday, two top officials of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, better known as the DAB, called for postponement of consideration of the bill until after next year's Legislative Council elections, which are to be held in late August or early September. Members elected then will take office on Oct. 1, 2004.
Ma Lik, the party's secretary- general, said his party still believes the legislation should be passed eventually and that it would not deprive residents of civil liberties, as democracy advocates have contended.
But Ma said the bill, known as Article 23 legislation, is still an emotional subject, and acknowledged that it could hurt his party in the next election if it remains at the center of public attention.
"If Article 23 legislation is still an issue, it will not benefit DAB, because it is very, very politicized," he said.
Ma said that he and Tsang Yok-sing, the party's chairman, had informed Tung and leaders in Beijing of their worries. "Tung and Beijing, they're evaluating and will decide later" when the issue should be brought to a vote, although the consultation document may be issued regardless, Ma said.
Tsang called for a delay in a column in yesterday's editions of Ming Pao newspapers, asserting that too little time was left in the current session of the Legislative Council to permit a full review.
A government spokeswoman repeated statements by Ambrose Lee, the new secretary of security, that no timetable had been set for passage of the bill. Lee's predecessor, Regina Ip, resigned last month after widespread criticism of her championing of the bill.
The DAB is one of two pro-Beijing parties, and is the more vulnerable in the next election. Six of its 10 members in the 60-member legislature represent geographic constituencies open to voting by the public, which has turned out huge demonstrations against the bill.