It is ironic that the Democratic Party has rejected the plan formulated by the League of Social Democrats for a legislator from each electoral district to resign, triggering by-elections, while the Civic Party has embraced this radical move, which is fraught with danger.
After all, when the Civic Party was first formed, its leaders were seen as highly sophisticated professionals who were politically moderate and who would provide an alternative to the Democratic Party, which had a history of social activism that appealed to the grass roots.
But Hong Kong has seen growing political radicalism in recent years, reflected in the emergence of the league and its loud-mouthed banana-throwing representatives in the Legislative Council.
The Civic Party, by throwing its lot in with the party of 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung, is playing a high-risk game, changing its image and shifting its political base.
Actually, the whole idea of a 'de facto referendum' is questionable. For one thing, will voters see it as a referendum or will they simply vote for the candidate of their choice?
If the election were a referendum, then it would not matter which candidate the league-Civic Party coalition put forward. However, this is clearly not the case.
Thus, the league's Albert Chan Wai-yip has offered not to seek re-election but to let former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming run, to enhance the chances of electoral victory.
More to the point, what is the referendum supposed to be on? It has to be a very specific proposal but, so far, no such suggestion has been forthcoming. And even if a proposal is formulated and the league and Civic Party candidates run on that platform, there is no way they can insist that their opponents go along with them and allow this to be a single-issue election.
Of course, if the proposal is for universal suffrage in 2012, then probably all pro-establishment candidates will take the position that Beijing is already committed to universal suffrage in 2017, so it is pointless to campaign for any other year.
The entire pan-democratic camp stands to lose. The pro-government camp will certainly pool their resources and support a single candidate in each electoral district in an attempt to wrest one or two seats away from the incumbents.
If the league-Civic Party coalition fails to retain all five seats, the so-called 'referendum' would be deemed a failure. And the pan-democratic coalition in the legislature would have been weakened, quite possibly to the extent that it may no longer be in a position to veto government proposals that require a two-thirds majority in Legco.
The pro-establishment parties will enter the by-elections with little to lose. After all, they are running for seats held by democrats.
Members of the league are street fighters. They have brought their tactics into the Legco chamber and opinion surveys show that a majority of voters oppose such behaviour. If the league loses a seat or two, its members can simply go back to the streets to continue their tactics.
The Civic Party, however, is different. Its leaders are barristers, not street fighters. If its members lose, they lose, period. They cannot turn to the streets. The Civic Party lacks the Democratic Party's grass-roots network, so the by-elections will not be easy for its candidates.
The Democratic Party, understandably, does not want to give the Civic Party anything beyond moral support. After all, active campaigning to urge Democratic Party supporters to vote for Civic Party candidates may result in the Democratic Party losing these supporters for good. Understandably, that is a risk no political party wants to take.
A lot more thought needs to go into this referendum idea. As it stands, the pan-democrats have everything to lose and little to gain.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.Topics: Civic Party Politics Referendum