New era to start as top Democrat steps down
Martin Lee's retirement set to energise party
Martin Lee Chu-ming's decision to retire from elective politics will herald the beginning of a much-awaited, long-overdue process of succession in the trouble-plagued Democratic Party.
The leadership's change in mindset towards a greater sense of urgency for succession was triggered by Beijing's decision in December to give a timetable for universal suffrage.
However volatile it remains, there is now a possibility that the chief executive and all members of the legislature will be elected by universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020, respectively, following the NPC Standing Committee's decision.
That has and will pose a growing challenge to political parties for them to make long-term preparations for the arrival of full democracy.
For Mr Lee and his party, the pros and cons of him contesting the Legislative Council elections in September are clear.
True, the Democrats would have stood a better chance of winning two seats on Hong Kong Island if he had run again. As well as his own seat, second-tier member Kam Nai-wai, with veteran Yeung Sum ranking second on a separate list, might have been able to get one more seat.
The downside is that it would deny an opportunity for second- and third-tier members to hone their skills and gain experience in election battle. If a new generation of Democrats is to be ready for universal suffrage in 2020, the plain reality is that they have only three Legco elections to gain experience and build up strengths - 2008, 2012 and 2016.
With the Legco election only six months away, it is unrealistic to expect facelifts in the Democrats' team of candidates.
Admittedly, there are doubts about the quality and ability of their second-tier members.
It would not be surprising if the Democrats failed to keep their two seats on Hong Kong Island. That is the risk the Democrats must face squarely if they want to focus on their long-term role. But the possibility of the pan-democratic camp getting less than one-third of Legco seats looks unlikely.
There are no real alternatives for the Democrats, who are beset by a long-standing dispute over a succession strategy - or more accurately the lack of one - and problems such as image and a decline in popularity.
Change is no longer a question of if, but how and when.
Even when Mr Lee was still party chairman, he acted more like a symbolic figurehead than a strong leader. The loss of a public face of the party in the new Legco may further weaken its image and support. But as the Chinese saying goes, with opportunity comes danger.
The retirement of Mr Lee from frontline politics could deepen the sense of crisis and provide a stronger impetus for the party to take bolder steps to rejuvenate the leadership in this year's poll and the 2012 Legco election.
As the most well-known democrat since he entered politics in the 1980s, Mr Lee, like some of his long-time allies, has had to carry huge political baggage because of his role in the June 4 protests.
That they are still not allowed to visit the mainland says a lot about their political conundrum in relations with Beijing.
With veterans such as Mr Lee, Yeung Sum and Szeto Wah fading from the political limelight, there may in the long run be more room for political manoeuvring and fence-mending between Democrats and the central government.