Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was telling the plain truth when he said the constitutional reform question has tortured society for more than 20 years. 'I deeply believe there is need to put a stop to it,' he said at a question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council last week. Ordinary people would have had no difficulty getting a sense of what he was alluding to if they had watched Mr Tsang and pan-democrat legislators wrestling on Thursday over the handling of the camp's proposals for universal suffrage in 2012. At one point, it appeared clear that the package jointly sponsored by 22 pan-democratic lawmakers would be included in a government green paper on options for achieving universal suffrage. The paper will be published for public consultation this summer. Asked by Audrey Eu Yuet-mee whether their model would be included in the green paper, Mr Tsang told the Civic Party legislator: 'It will be included.' But when pressed by another democrat, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, on whether their proposal would be one of the three models put forward, the chief executive was ambivalent. 'I have not yet decided what to do,' he said. 'The figure of three is a number which would make things easier to handle - all three proposals would achieve universal suffrage in different ways. My final promise is that I will give an account to Hongkongers on every proposal we have received, including the democrats' proposal in its entirety.' The exchange over whether the democrats' proposal would be included in the green paper and the form it would take might sound technical, if not insignificant. Ordinary people could be pardoned for feeling bewildered or, to borrow the words of Mr Tsang, tortured by the wordplay of politics at the question-and-answer session. To them, the protracted row over universal suffrage boils down to the simple and straightforward question - when? They would be happy to leave it to the politically active groups to hammer out the system's details. Now that Mr Tsang has pledged to put public opinion at the forefront of the decision on which model to put to Beijing, it is reasonable to expect that a proposal for electing the legislature and chief executive by universal suffrage in 2012 will be included as a clear and genuine option in the green paper. Only if it is can the process of gauging public support for its introduction sooner or later be meaningful and credible. Pan-democrats can be forgiven for being sceptical, or even cynical, about the green paper exercise. Government manipulation of public opinion has been the norm, not the exception, before and since the handover. Officials have hinted they will only put forward proposals that stand a good chance of winning the support of 40 of the 60 legislators and Beijing's approval. Pro-Beijing leaders have moved to dampen public expectations of electing the chief executive and all members of Legco by universal suffrage in 2012. Leaders of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong have publicly said the earliest possible date for universal suffrage for the chief executive would be 2017 and for the legislature 2020. Local pro-Beijing figures, to whom mainland officials talk regularly, say Beijing has become more fearful of universal suffrage in the wake of the fiercely-fought chief executive election. Such moves appear to be part of efforts to convince the public 2012 is a non-starter. Hongkongers are known for their political pragmatism, and the prolonged dispute frustrates them. They are prepared to compromise - albeit grudgingly - on the date for introducing universal suffrage. But any political tricks to manipulate the consultation exercise by tinkering with the options and the opinions they elicit will backfire.