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Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Dissent is part of democracy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 3:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 3:53am

What is supposed to set democratic movements apart is that they are tolerant of different ideas and opinions, subject to respect for their core beliefs. That calls for calm and reasoned policy debate in search of consensus among leaders and rank-and-file members alike. However, democratic movements are also human. Passion and principle can leave them as prone as any other to intolerance or retribution for failure to toe the official line.

An example has arisen in the Democratic Party over opposition to the government's limited political reform package. Party member Nelson Wong Sing-chi, a former lawmaker seen as a moderate, announced plans to break ranks to launch a petition to give the package backing conditional on minor concessions. He has since abandoned them after Beijing ruled out any concessions, but not before accusations of treachery and 21-1 vote by the party's central committee to suspend him. Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said this was justified "because the damage has already been done", in the sense that some people perceived the party was wavering in its stand.

It is true that democratic parties observe the principle of collective responsibility for and cabinet solidarity behind decisions in government. Rank-and-file party members, however, should retain the right of dissent and debate. In this case, Wong saw the government's package, while deeply disappointing to Democrats, as better than nothing. Like it or not, that is not an isolated sentiment. It ill becomes a group that preaches democracy and inclusiveness to turn on someone with dissenting views.

To say you are either 100 per cent with us on political reform or against us is more akin to the style of an authoritarian party. The contest of ideas is essential to healthy development of policy and consensus. It is just as important for it to be conducted freely within a party as between parties.