Outside the winner's circle
Pan-democrats know next year's vote for chief executive is already a done deal but are determined to make the most of a bad situation.
They emerged the big winners of this month's subsector elections and can now count on 205 of the 1,200 seats on the Election Committee that will choose the city's next leader.
The two pro-Beijing front-runners, Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying, have secured 203 and 50 declared backers respectively, with many being non-committal.
Having easily exceeded the 150-seat minimum needed to secure nomination for a candidate to contest the committee's chief executive vote on March 25, the bloc's main challenge is to make its presence felt, given it has no chance of winning. Aiding their cause is the uncertainty over the prospects of Tang and Leung, either of whom could win Beijing's approval.
As Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok remarked: 'There is no such thing as an iron-clad vote - a signal from Beijing can take away all the support from one camp.'
With two pan-democrat candidates seeking to join the race, they have been denounced from within their own ranks for taking part in what they decry as 'a small-circle election'.
But Albert Ho Chun-yan, one of the two seeking the bloc's nomination, said it was a road that needed to be taken, if only to raise public awareness about the struggle for democracy. 'The participation is part of the ongoing campaign of democratisation,' said Ho, the Democratic Party's chairman. 'We have to uphold core values and contest the small-circle election.'
His rival for nomination, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, a lawmaker from the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, agreed.
'Regardless of the format of the election, we have to treat it seriously and bring it to the public or else those who are powerful will abuse their power,' Fung said.
The pan-democrats' solution is, in effect, to hold their own small-circle election: the bloc will hold a 'primary election' to decide who will represent them on March 25, based on opinion surveys on January 3 and 7 after televised debates between the candidates and an electronic poll on January 8.
With a budget for the exercise estimated at HK$400,000, the pan-democrats will set up 60 ballot points at MTR stations, at which all the city's permanent residents can cast a vote via a computer after showing their identity card.
Critics, particularly those on the bloc's radical wing, say such an exercise and the successful candidate's participation in the March election legitimises an unfair system that lacks a popular mandate.
However, Ho believes such engagement with the public is needed to uphold freedom of speech and democracy: 'We will foster the social connection via the media and public discussion.'
Ho said the goal of the pan-democrats' primary election was to compel Tang and Leung to face controversial issues that they would otherwise avoid.
'Hongkongers are concerned about Article 23 of the Basic Law,' said Ho, referring to city's obligation to enact legislation that will 'prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central people's government'.
Previous attempts to enact such legislation have triggered demonstrations, particularly on July 1, 2003, when 500,000 people took to the streets.
Ho said that 'without the presence of a pan-democratic candidate, [Tang and Leung] would never express their stance on these matters', or the issue of a road map to full universal suffrage.
He said the radical factions' call for a boycott of what they see as an illegitimate election would not work.
'We boycotted the election in 2002 by staging a 70-hour hunger strike outside the Star Ferry Pier, followed by a protest, but the publicity died down after one day and the majority of the citizens just ignored it,' Ho said.
Fung said the job of chief executive was too important to be ignored, and at the very least the primary voting exercise gave him 'a platform to express my visions as a politician'.
The primary election was also important to pave the way for the more inclusive system that is expected to be introduced in five years' time, according to one of the pan-democrats' core election organisers.
Beijing has said that, at the earliest, universal suffrage for choosing the chief executive can be introduced in 2017.
Charles Mok, chairman of the Professional Commons, a pan-democrat lobby group, said the bloc's primary election offered an opportunity to fine-tune and perfect the system due to be adopted in 2017, under which all Hongkongers would be able to vote for chief executive candidates nominated by the Election Committee.
'We are striving to establish a primary mechanism with the greatest legitimacy to prepare for the next chief executive election, which will be universal suffrage,' said Mok, who will be responsible for the logistics of the primary's electronic ballot.
'Execution-wise, a trial run can help us familiarise ourselves with a system to select someone who can truly represent the pan-democrats when universal suffrage arrives. We can also prepare the public by promoting the campaign and calling on them to vote.'
Mok said the outcome of the primary would be known at 8pm on January 8 - one hour after the nine-hour polling ends - because the electronic system would allow instant data compiling.
Radical faction member Wong Yuk-man denounced the exercise.
'No matter whether it is Albert Ho or Frederick Fung who wins, it is shameless to take part in the small-circle election,' Wong, of People Power, said. 'They feel they will make some difference by cornering the pro-Beijing candidates - but they will not. They are just feeling good - they will suffer a humiliating defeat in the [chief executive] election as Beijing will retain a tight grip on it.'
The number of Election Committee seats won by candidates holding key positions in dominant businesses, mainly property