No surrender

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2009, 12:00am

To quit or not to quit, that is the question that has had the pan-democrats in internal strife for months. Their Hamlet-esque dilemma is this: whether quitting is the answer to their dissatisfaction over the government's proposals in the consultation paper, or mass political suicide.

The melodrama of the resignation-cum-de-facto-referendum ploy has embroiled politicians in a storm, with harsh words being exchanged, and has resulted in more than a few bruised egos. What this melodrama has shown, however, is rather telling about where our pan-democrats stand on politics. A functioning democracy needs to be based on mutual respect. If the resignation ploy had been properly deliberated within the camp, all the bickering that has surfaced would probably not have occurred. Whatever grand idea the League of Social Democrats had, it should have talked it over with the rest of the camp.

In the race to snatch the limelight, set the agenda and essentially show 'who's the boss', the league conveniently forgot that it does not have the necessary seats from each geographical constituency to pull off the move itself and, thus, cannot call the shots. Utilising media pressure, the league may have got the Civic Party to echo its thoughts, but for independent and Democratic Party lawmakers, who have a long-established relationship with their voter base, ramming the idea down their throats does not work.

Democratic politics has to include deliberation. What is politics - in fact, what is democracy - without that? Without deliberation, Martin Lee Chu-ming - once a supporter of the resignation idea - would not have made a U-turn and, instead, asked for his colleagues 'to stop and think'. It is from such a deliberative process that some have been able to look beyond the smoke and point out the plan's fundamental flaws.

In fact, pro-democracy academics and newspaper columnists have been pointing to the plan's deficiencies for months. It is outrageous that these plans for action have dominated headlines for so long when they have not been well thought out.

Any resignations and ensuing by-elections would add spice to the constitutional reform discussion, but what could possibly come out of it - especially when the purpose of the de facto referendum remains unclear? Is it a referendum on scrapping the functional constituencies? Or is it about the impossible - full democracy in 2012? For all intents and purposes, it is nothing but a campaign for 'change no one can believe in' - and hardly something to quit over.

And perhaps the biggest rift among pan-democrats is their view on representative democracy, which should be the essence of the current debate. Elected representatives have a duty to keep the government in check and, in many cases, to fight and confront it, to make it shift and strike a deal with it for the people. Quitting does not quite fit in to that formula, and for good reason, too; throwing in the towel just because there is nothing else to hurl at officials makes as little sense as relieving elected opposition lawmakers of their duty to represent the people in the legislature as a way to oppose the government.

There is nothing thoughtful about abandoning representative democracy in the face of a tough political battle. 'To quit or not to quit' is not the question elected lawmakers should be asking themselves.

It is time for all pan-democrats to let go of divisive politics and get back to basics. Since politics is said to be the art of the possible, and not of the provocative, pan-democrats need to concentrate on showing in detail what they can all agree on as a better and possible alternative to what the government has proposed.

For those who find the government's way forward lacking, their job is to find some 'wiggle room' and convince the people, as well as Beijing, that their way is better. And, anyway, we all know what people say about quitters: they never win.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA