A changing political landscape

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 June, 2010, 12:00am

Throw away your old maps: the political landscape is changing.

With the passage of the constitutional reform package and a change in the way Beijing and Hong Kong interact, a major realignment is taking place. And it could usher in a new era where moderate and radical democrats, although no longer united, can further entrench their influence with the public.

The split among pan-democrats over the reform saga is not going to make life easier for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, whose task now is to deal with the daily bread-and-butter issues.

The dynamics of the city's political scene have already changed since the Democratic Party took the path of no return in deciding to negotiate with Beijing for concessions, short of the introduction of full universal suffrage to elect the chief executive and all members of Legco in 2012.

After a two-day debate, lawmakers yesterday passed by 46 to 13 the resolution to enlarge the Election Committee to choose the next chief executive in 2012. The other resolution, which would create five new functional constituency seats for district councillors to be returned through direct election - a compromise proposed by the party - is set to be passed today.

The change in Beijing's attitude towards the Democratic Party it has tried to ignore for almost two decades is a gamble.

Whether or not this is a divide-and-rule tactic targeting the pan-democratic camp, or a demonstration of resolve in introducing genuine universal suffrage, a precedent has been set that even the all-powerful central government can, as billed by some foreign media, 'cave in' before public opinion, fearing the rise of radicals and the demise of moderate democrats would destabilise Hong Kong.

For when something can happen once, people will expect it to happen again.

Yet while there is no reason to doubt the pan-democrats when they promise that they will fight for universal suffrage, veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming has expressed a legitimate fear.

'The passing of this proposal will only help Beijing to split the people,' Lee said.

'Instead of moving towards abolishing functional constituencies, it only took a big step from small-circle elections to one with a bigger circle.'

But the leader of his party, Albert Ho Chun-yan, believes that even if Beijing wants to play tricks and keep functional constituencies, there is no harm in grabbing the far-from-perfect offer on the table, before continuing to fight for universal suffrage.

What is beyond doubt is that despite its promise to maintain Hong Kong's autonomy, Beijing has now stepped into the frontline in running Hong Kong affairs. This may empower the role of the central government's liaison office as Beijing's more active agent in Hong Kong.

Veteran politician Allen Lee Peng-fei said that despite Tsang's expected claiming of credit for untying the reform deadlock, pressure on his governance will only increase, rather than decrease.

'Everybody knows Beijing held the key. Do you think pan-democrats still want to talk to Bowtie in the future when they need to negotiate for something? He will surely become a lame duck,' Lee said.

Despite Tsang's effort to petition state leaders highlighting an imminent governance crisis in the rest of his term if the Democratic Party's compromise proposal was not accepted, the pressure he now faces can only be reduced for a brief period.

While the split among pan-democrats could provide the government with more room to manoeuvre on political controversies, past experience indicates that the support of individual parties must be secured when it comes to livelihood issues.

With or without a pan-democrat split, the government will face difficulties in pushing ahead unscathed its upcoming legislative proposals, such as setting up a minimum wage and a competition law.

With the potentially most damaging issue out of the way, Lee said the passage of the reform proposal would encourage Tsang's aspirant successors to take more active roles.

That means further damage to Tsang's administration, because both potential top runners - Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Executive Council Convenor Leung Chun-ying - are part of Tsang's governing team.

The impact of the reform saga will be seen in the 2012 Legco elections, if not in the District Council elections next year, since the district councillors to be elected will nominate the candidates for the five Legco seats in 2012 and fill them.

In terms of party politics, a split can benefit the individual pan- democrats under Legco's proportional representation electoral system, which favours smaller parties.

A veteran Democrat said one key advantage of a split between major forces within the camp is the ability of each faction to consolidate supporters and attract new ones.

The great divide over those supporting the Democrats' reform proposal and those against it is set to cause a major redistribution of party affiliation. Despite losing a large chunk of comparatively radical backers, the Democrats have won support from moderate voters. Many of them previously voted for the Civic Party.

Like it or not, the new relations between Beijing and the Democrats mean the frequent claim that they 'oppose for the sake of opposition' no longer applies. He might have been attacked for 'selling out' democracy, but the controversial positioning of the party by chairman Albert Ho - whose negotiations with Beijing secured the deal - as a moderate, pragmatic force added new synergy to the ageing democratic flagship.

This will inevitably become an attraction for conservative voters who, despite having not gone as far as voting for parties like the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, have previously supported Beijing-backed independents such as Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

The League of Social Democrats, which has all along taken a no-compromise approach, has strengthened its position in taking the moral high ground.

Tactically, the league is one of the biggest winners, set to return at least one lawmaker for each of the five Legco geographical constituencies in 2012 - a trend that has already become apparent since the so-called de facto referendum exercise last year. The Civic Party, however, is set to lose core middle-class, moderate supporters to the Democratic Party due to its association with the league.

But the victory that party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee scored in her televised debate with Tsang over constitutional reform unexpectedly saved her, and possibly the fortune of the party, from a fall.

Meanwhile, government allies are harbouring widespread discontent after being forced to swallow the Democratic Party's proposal at the last minute, after Beijing and the government indicated their support.

Some Beijing loyalists believe it will take time to mend relations with the administration after they were made the 'backdrop' to a show starring the Democrats and directed by Beijing at Tsang's behest. Until now able to bill themselves as links to the capital, parties like the DAB are seeing their credibility tarnished in the zero-sum game of politics.