Beijing has accepted a compromise proposal on constitutional reform put forward by the Democratic Party, according to moderate democrats whose votes are needed to ensure the passage of the government's electoral arrangements for 2012.
The government is expected to announce tomorrow the adoption of the Democrats' proposal and its endorsement by Beijing officials - hours before the party meets to decide whether or not its nine lawmakers should support the electoral changes when they are put to a vote in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
Several moderate democrats, including Bruce Liu Sing-lee, of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, and Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah, said they had received the same message from mainland contacts.
'The message said that the central government has accepted the Democratic Party's 'one person, two votes' proposal, and will make an announcement as soon as possible,' Liu said after a meeting with members of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage, a grouping of moderate democrats.
The Democrats' proposal is for most of the 3 million-plus registered voters to have a vote on five new seats in Legco's district councils functional constituency. Those who already have a vote in other functional constituencies will be excluded. Voting in such constituencies is restricted to certain trades and professions.
For the first time since the party floated the idea, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen commented positively on it. 'This proposal will really increase the democratic elements [in the political system], and it will not affect too much our original proposal,' Tsang said after a pro-government rally in Victoria Park. 'I hope a conclusion will come soon.'
Tsang reiterated that the key to accepting the proposal was whether it complied with Beijing's 2007 decision on the pace of democratisation - he said he believed 'the question of whether it is constitutional has been clarified to a large extent' - and whether it would be supported by at least two-third of lawmakers, as the Basic Law requires.
'This is a giant step forward in democratisation,' said independent lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who discussed the matter with Tsang yesterday. 'Just imagine having five more seats to be returned by more than 3 million voters.'
A moderate democrat said mixed messages from mainland officials and Beijing loyalist circles in the past few weeks showed a split between hawks and doves. 'The doves eventually got the upper hand,' the person said.
Tsang has separately lobbied the Democratic Party leadership and government allies for support. Three big groups among the latter - the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the Federation of Trade Unions and the Liberal Party - all now say they are prepared to back the Democrats' proposal if Beijing does.
Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan said Tsang had promised the nomination process for the seats would be fair.
'This is the best result we can get at this stage to increase democratic elements in the system,' Ho said. 'We will continue to fight for genuine universal suffrage to be introduced.'
The Alliance for Universal Suffrage also pledged that taking the offer on the table would not signal the end of the fight for universal suffrage.
The Democratic Party's central committee will recommend to tomorrow's full party conference that its lawmakers support the reform proposals if they meet its demands.
Pan-democrat leaders are trying to heal rifts in the camp, whose more hardline members say they won't back the government's reform plan without a full promise from Beijing that Hong Kong will have universal suffrage.
Veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming and two other hardliners warned the compromise could give Beijing an excuse to keep functional constituencies in the future.
'The government's proposal stinks and is wanted by nobody. Why should the Democratic Party patch it up and accept it?' he said ahead of a rowdy party seminar. 'It is as if people have forgotten our ultimate goal.'
Meanwhile, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, former leader of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese, who said on Friday that the Democrats' proposal could be a breakthrough, stressed yesterday that he had not thrown his weight behind the idea. He simply wanted pan-democrats to discuss among themselves how it tallied with their goal of scrapping functional constituencies.
'There are many loopholes and people have to be careful,' Zen said.