Using high-sounding rhetoric, Liberal Party chief Allen Lee Peng-fei spoke more like a Democrat than the head of a businessman-led party in Wednesday's Budget debate. 'As a political party that faced the masses and is accountable to voters, [we] must try our best to fight for the policies that are in the best interest of the public based on conscience and public opinion, and give an account to the public afterwards,' Mr Lee said. 'Pitifully, some commentators have deliberately confused right and wrong, black and white, and put labels on the Liberal Party. 'What is a fulfilment of our duty has become a calculated move in the eyes of some commentators for us to get votes, publicity and claim the credit. 'Those people do not understand the truth about democratic politics and how they work . . . What's wrong with a political party founded by the masses working for their voters?' he asked. It sounds fine when put like that. But the idea of 'going to the masses' is in marked contrast to the public perception of the party as a political lobby for business interests. With the notable exception of Mr Lee, the veteran founding chairman of the party, all his colleagues in the disbanded Legco represented business and professional interests. He was the only legislator returned in a geographical constituency in 1995. Whatever Mr Lee may say, his party has seldom been strongly associated with 'the masses', nor has it been a champion of the have-nots. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that more than 20 members of the Hong Kong Island branch of the party vented their deep-rooted frustrations recently over the leadership's ignorance of the importance of district work. They did it by leaving en masse. The high-profile resignation of long-time member Jennifer Chow Kit-bing grabbed the headlines. But it was merely a trigger point. This is not the first time that the Liberal Party - founded in 1993 as the successor to the Co-operative Resources Centre, formed two years earlier - has been hit by waves of resignations around election time. The latest controversy was sparked by a decision to change the team leader of the party's candidates in the upcoming Hong Kong Island battle. Originally that was Ms Chow. But the party pushed for the return of a former party high-flier, Ada Wong Ying-ki, to lead the four-seat battle. It was not so much because Ms Wong stood a better chance of winning a seat, a party source said, because the outcome of the Hong Kong Island poll is in little doubt. The four seats will likely go to four political heavyweights - Martin Lee Chu-ming, Yeung Sum from the Democrats, Gary Cheng Kai-nam of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and the Citizens Party's Christine Loh Kung-wai. The Liberal Party is in fact looking to the second Legco elections in 2000, when the number of directly elected seats will be increased from 20 to 24, said the party insider. It will take another few years before the number of geographical seats goes up to 30, or half of the legislature, but Allen Lee is adamant the party must prepare for full universal suffrage in the long run. 'It would be a shame for the party if it was unable to put up a decent fight in the Hong Kong Island constituency, where there is a high concentration of voters from business and professional backgrounds,' the source said. 'As long as the party is led by Chow Kit-bing in the election, it will be difficult to test the levels of support. It would be better to put a heavyweight in the constituency as soon as possible.' Ms Wong, as of yesterday, had yet to make up her mind. A key player in the party's unsuccessful campaign in the District Board elections in September, 1994, Ms Wong quit the Liberals later that year. She was frustrated with its ambivalent position on democratic elections. She said at the time: 'You cannot say you support freedom and democracy but do not support popular elections.' The party, she said, should participate fully in elections, including the geographical seats. Yet, three years later, there has been no drastic change in the party's election strategy as far as the May polls are concerned. The party plans to contest at least two of the five geographical constituencies. But Allen Lee, again, remains the only candidate standing a real chance. Mr Lee has said that party colleagues Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee and Ronald Arculli were keen to compete in the geographical polls. But he saw that happening in two years' time, when their successors had been groomed. The Liberal Party's limited participation in the geographical polls reflects its mentality that securing its present seats comes above everything. Party leaders dare not risk giving up their functional seats to face uncertainty in direct elections. Reservations about an all-out effort in the 20 geographical seats remain strong. But the party insider emphasised that the debate over whether the party should go for functional polls and geographical seats was over. 'The trend towards direct elections is irresistible.' The Liberal Party, with its political stars and household names, does not just face the problem of whether or not to go to the masses. The present proportional representation system, with its large constituencies, would make it easier for the Liberals to campaign and they could focus on a large-scale campaign. The more fundamental problem, however, lies with the positioning of the party in the new political scene. It faces questions about where it stands on sectoral interests, and with looming signs of a widening gap between the rich and the poor, sectoral conflicts are likely to worsen. Should it go for a larger share of seats in the geographical constituency, the Liberal Party would have to perform a balancing act in matters such as employer-employee conflicts. In his emotive speech, Mr Lee sought to impress on the community that his party was also a party for the people. As the only Liberal leader who has had a real taste of democratic elections, he should well understand the rules of the game and where the votes are. Over the past few years, there has been a marked trend in his party to try to re-package itself. Core leader Henry Tang Ying-yen has attempted to build an image of a 'capitalist with a good heart'. As the party source admitted: 'The party has to look beyond the interests of the business sector to wider concerns of the community. 'But on some issues that are fundamental to the business sector, the party has little room for compromise.' How to strike a balance will be difficult. Professor Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese University believes the future of the Liberal Party depends on whether it is able to 'unite different classes' by bridging the gap between the business sector and the masses as well as the rich and the poor. 'It's not impossible, but very difficult. The present economic recession will make it even more difficult to bridge the gap,' Professor Lau said. The Liberal Party will need to get support from both the business sector and the grassroots, he said. 'It has to lobby for concessions from the business sector so that it can demonstrate to the grassroots it can fight for their interests. On the other hand, they will not be able to win support from the business sector if they do not have mass support. 'It's more a case of split personality within the party at the moment than party members going in different directions,' said Professor Lau. The party also faces difficult decisions on some other concrete issues. While it supports greater efforts to improve the environment, it is bound to face strong resistance from the business community if the introduction of new environmental measures means digging into its own pockets. And although the Liberals have become more conciliatory on labour rights and benefits issues in the past few years, it is inconceivable that Mr Tang and his party colleague James Tien Pei-tsun will see eye to eye with unionists Lau Chin-shek and Lee Cheuk-yan. As the May 24 elections draw near, the longstanding issue of the election strategy of the Liberal Party has re-emerged with new faces, old comrades and resignations. There are signs that the party leadership has become more determined to start establishing a strong district network before it is too late. But that leaves a more fundamental question to be answered: what does the Liberal Party stand for in the future political scene?