Democrats in revival mode

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2006, 12:00am

Even the most sanguine supporters of the Democratic Party cannot seriously believe that the election of a new leadership, under Albert Ho Chun-yan, will bring the democratic flagship back to its golden era of the 1990s.

That would be a tall order for the newly elected chairman, during his two-year term. With his win on Sunday, he becomes the third person to inherit the hot seat since founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming stepped down in 2002, after a stint of eight years.

The short-lived chairmanships of Mr Ho's two predecessors, Yeung Sum (2002-2004) and Lee Wing-tat (2004-2006), reflects something of the political turbulence the party has experienced.

The top mission for Mr Ho and his team, realistically, is not so much to regain lost ground in the legislative and district councils. Rather, it's to stop the party from further decline in the league of Hong Kong politics.

The Democrats' challenges have come from both within the pan-democratic camp and its major rival, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Pan-democratic candidates won landslide victories in some Election Committee sub-sector elections on December 10. That shed light on the popularity and mobilisation power of the Civic Party in the professional sectors, dominated by the middle class.

Meanwhile, the newly formed League of Social Democrats (LSD) - led by popular activists including 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and Raymond Wong Yuk-man - is no doubt a force to be reckoned with in geographical constituency elections, particularly the Legco polls in 2008.

It is still unclear whether the Democrats, to avoid infighting, can co-ordinate with other pro-democratic allies, including the Civic Party and the LSD, in elections next year and in 2008.

It's clear that a split democratic force would benefit pro-government forces, led by the DAB.

With the next district council election about one year away, a sense of urgency has gripped the Democrats' leadership.

This is because the results of the district polls will be critically important for the Democrats.

They are already suffering from a decline in public support and a string of internal problems. A major electoral setback would deal a body blow to their popularity and morale.

If that happened, it would significantly disrupt the party's plan for the 2008 Legco election. A further decline would then become inevitable.

Long-time political watchers may think the leadership change was not drastic enough. Mr Ho and his two deputies, Sin Chung-kai and Tik Chi-yuen, are hardly new faces.

But the fact that both Lee Wing-tat and Mr Yeung stepped down does indicate a degree of political will to bring about changes through the elevation of moderates to the leadership.

This is despite the fact that all seven candidates from the reformist faction in the party's executive committee election were eliminated.

The clean sweep of the mainstream faction in the executive body will no doubt risk alienating the reformist camp, which may become increasingly bitter. At worst, a small-scale wave of resignations cannot be ruled out.

It appears that the mainstream faction is prepared to pay that price as the lesser of two evils.

Keeping a token presence of reformist members in the executive committee carries the perhaps even higher risk of a protracted power struggle.

As the party braces for the major elections next year and in 2008, its members are eager to put an end, even if only temporarily, to the factional dispute. They want to strengthen the party, to keep it afloat in choppy seas.

Whether or not that will happen hinges on Mr Ho's skill and effort in reconciling differences with the reformists on contentious issues such as succession and election strategy.

Success in that endeavour could produce a win-win resolution for the party - and for its supporters.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large