Strength in unity
The poor showing of the Civic Party in the recent Legislative Council election is partly due to the emergence of the radical League of Social Democrats. The league's candidates never spared an opportunity to criticise the Civic Party for being a group of snobbish and hypocritical democrats.
But the attacks could not explain why Alan Leong Kah-kit only got 39,000 votes, less than the combined 45,000 received by the Democratic Party's Wu Chi-wai and the league's Andrew To Kwan-hang.
Nor does it explain why Ronny Tong Ka-wah ranked sixth on the seven-winner list in New Territories East and why the once-confident duo of Tanya Chan and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee made a desperate 'Save Audrey' call in the last week of the election.
I think there are two main reasons why the Civic Party has lost its glitter. The first is that this election was no longer mainly about democracy or freedom, the issues that had brought the Civic Party to fame. Democracy was a non-issue this time after the central government proclaimed a timetable for universal suffrage - 2017 for the election of the chief executive and 2020 for all Legco members.
Freedom is not presently at risk because the government has not announced any plan to reintroduce Article 23 national security legislation.
Second, given the changed circumstances, it was natural for the voters to focus on the candidates' track record of the past four years before deciding whom to support. This is where the Civic Party lost out to both the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Democratic Party.
Established only two years ago, the Civic Party did not have an elaborate district network in many places. Its candidates won seats in the 2004 election on the basis of personal appeal. During the last election, they were judged on their performance, which was found particularly lacking in the districts. Compared with the Civic Party, the Democratic Party maintained its district work over the past four years. In fact, Kam Nai-wai and Wong Sing-chi, both district councillors, got elected on the basis of their solid contribution to neighbourhood matters. All the incumbent Democratic Party legislators who got re-elected are also district councillors.
But the Democratic Party has a major problem - succession. The retirement of Martin Lee Chu-ming marked the end of the era of the first generation democrats. While it was right for Yeung Sum to take second place on the ticket, both Mr Kam and Mr Wong, who won seats, are already in their late 40s or early 50s. Mr Wu and Cheung Yin-tang, who ran on their own tickets and lost, are only a few years younger. So, the second tier of the Democratic Party is at least a decade older than that of the Civic Party, such as with Ms Chan, or of the DAB, such as with Starry Lee Wai-king and Gary Chan Hak-kan.
Another problem of the Democratic Party is gender. Our women legislators have shown themselves to be on a par with, and at times better than, their male counterparts. The recent election has also returned new and younger women members. But, since its establishment 14 years ago, the Democratic Party is alone in having no woman legislators among its ranks. It cannot continue to be a male-led party without losing women supporters in the future.
While both the Civil Party and the Democratic Party have their own and different difficulties, each can actually help solve the other's problems. Working together as one entity, the still fresh and more youthful image of the Civic Party can improve the middle-age profile of the Democratic Party. Also, the district network that the Democratic Party has built up over many years can redress the weakest link in the Civic Party. In the next election, in 2012, the Democratic Party and the Civic Party will face a stronger DAB, with support from inside and outside Hong Kong. They will also have to fight the League of Social Democrats, which has no qualms about getting votes from other democrats.
Merging the Democratic Party and Civic Party before the next election would be a great boost to the democratic cause and raise its profile at home and abroad.
The new party would have experienced hands as well as youthful aspirants. It would possess both intellectual capability and district pragmatism. The new party would attract more voters, particularly those who shied away from the polls.
The target should be to complete the merger before 2012. This is because there will be at least five more seats in the geographical constituencies in the next election, based on the government's electoral reform proposal in 2005 that eventually failed to secure the required two-thirds majority support in Legco.
So, there will be more opportunities for the younger candidates of the new party to get elected.
The Democratic Party was formed in 1994 when the United Democrats of Hong Kong merged with the Meeting Point. It marked the beginning of a golden era for the Democratic Party, until a few years ago.
The time has come for the Democratic Party and the Civic Party to combine their strengths and resolve their problems in a merger. Their future depends on it.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is currently an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong