It was a much-touted notion, but 'executive-led' government in post-colonial Hong Kong is more myth than reality, the administration is learning. This has been shown in a wide range of issues, from vital political matters such as electoral reform and anti-subversion legislation to mundane livelihood dilemmas like public housing rent adjustments and a railway merger. Consider the three cases highlighted at right. The government's about-turn on the rent bill (Case 1) spoke volumes about its political predicaments, said an Executive Council member who asked to remain anonymous. 'It's a classic case,' he said. 'Can you see any 'executive-led' there? The government had no alternative but to make concessions to political parties to get the bill passed.' There is no government party in the Legislative Council. This has forced the administration - under both former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - to build coalitions with like-minded political parties and factions to get legislation passed. Its normal allies are the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the Liberal Party, the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and The Alliance. In moves more symbolic than substantial, both chief executives gave key members of the friendly parties and factions seats on the Executive Council, the highest policymaking body. They included Tsang Yok-sing of the DAB, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee of the Liberals (after Liberal chief James Tien Pei-chun resigned in 2003), Cheng Yiu-tong of the FTU and Bernard Chan of The Alliance. The fiasco of the national security bill (Case 3) and government concessions over the rent adjustment bill laid bare the fragility of the so-called ruling coalition model. And partisan voting on the 2005 constitutional reform package (Case 2) revealed the limited room for manoeuvring with the opposition over political issues such as democratisation. Privately, some key members of the Tsang team concede the government has no alternative but to negotiate with political parties on a case-by-case basis if the present system remains unchanged - however unstable and undesirable that might be. They share the pan-democrats' view that the ultimate route to good governance is full democracy, which would encourage the healthy growth of party politics in Hong Kong. But under current circumstances any move to universal suffrage seems more theoretical than real. This is despite the profound changes in the mentality and aspirations of Hongkongers since the July 1, 2003 protest of half a million people. They called for the scrapping of the national security bill and the resignations of Mr Tung and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the minister in charge of the bill. If that protest is the major landmark in the first 10 years after the handover, that's because it led to sea changes in the city's political life. The government's withdrawal of the security bill gave a practical meaning to the otherwise elusive concept of people power: it convinced Hongkongers that nothing was impossible. Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said she was struck by the influence of that rally. 'Ever since, Hong Kong people have realised that if they are prepared to stand up and be counted, they can make a difference and force change.' Welcome to a new phase in Hong Kong's democratic movement. Chan Kin-man, a sociologist at Chinese University, said the push for democracy had found a more solid footing since the handover. Beijing recognised its importance in ensuring good governance, he said. 'At long last there is a common language for dialogue between society and Beijing on the issue of universal suffrage.' It was not until Beijing's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong was settled in the mid-1980s that the British administration made belated efforts to democratise the political system. Following the introduction of direct elections to district boards, indirect elections based on functional constituencies were introduced for Legco in 1985. Amid the city's jitters over 1997, hopes were high that a more democratic political system would help deter communist authorities' from meddling in Hong Kong's internal affairs. The Tiananmen shooting of students and civilians in 1989 bolstered the idea of adopting democracy as a tool to resist the communist regime. The rest is history. Ten years after the handover, the pragmatic Beijing leadership has awakened to the reality that a people's continued demand for the right to elect their leaders can no longer be suppressed in a high-handed manner. While sticking to their cardinal principles of prudence and gradualism, state leaders have reaffirmed the goal of universal suffrage. In his campaign for a second term, Donald Tsang pledged to come up with a 'complete solution' to the issue in the next five years. A green paper on the detailed arrangements, road map and timetable for universal suffrage is due for consultation in the summer. Tsang Yok-sing, who sits in both Exco and Legco, maintains that Beijing knows universal suffrage must be introduced but remains undecided on when and how. 'It faces a dilemma over the final blueprint: they know people won't accept it if it's too conservative, but they will feel uneasy if it goes too quickly,' he said. In the past few months, the pro-Beijing camp has tried to dampen expectations for universal suffrage in 2012. DAB leaders have maintained 2012 is a non-starter. Party chairman Ma Lik says the earliest possible time would be 2017. Leading pro-Beijing figures, including Exco convenor Leung Chun-ying, have warned of a constitutional crisis if a majority of Hongkongers elect a chief executive, through universal suffrage, whom Beijing refuses to appoint. A senior mainland source was widely quoted by the media in May saying there should be more communication between Beijing and Hong Kong on the candidates for chief executive elections. And the nomination procedure for candidates should be more stringent, the source said. A Tsang team member, who did not want to be named, said ordinary people would not be interested in following various proposals on the nomination mechanism. 'Their demand is quite simple,' he said. 'They want to see people like Alan Leong Kah-kit being able to compete with Donald Tsang in an election. If the system is manipulated to screen out the democrats, there's no point in introducing universal suffrage. We would become a laughing stock in the international community.' The Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 cast a chill on relations between the pan-democratic camp and Beijing that has yet to thaw. Most core leaders of the Democratic Party have not yet been able to return freely to the mainland. Hopes of a thaw following the elevation to chief executive of Mr Tsang, who was on talking terms with the democrats, proved to be short-lived. Pundits do foresee a window for reconciliation between the government and democrats in the upcoming constitutional reform debate and the beginning of the second Tsang administration. Yet with two sets of elections looming - district councils in November and Legco next year - analysts say the political scene will remain fraught with uncertainty and tension. The anonymous Exco member said democrats should begin soul-searching on their long-term development. 'Do they want to come to power when universal suffrage is introduced? Or do they want to position themselves as an opposition force for a longer span of time? Either way, they need to make preparations, such as grooming new faces,' he said. 'They should also seize every opportunity to play a bigger role in policy formulation, such as [gaining seats in] Exco.' While trying to manage his relations with the opposition, Mr Tsang also faces the more difficult task of grooming political talent for the post-2012 administration. During his first term, he decided to introduce two more tiers in the accountability system with the posts of deputy minister and assistant minister. Mr Tsang has said he may search for ministerial candidates among political parties and the media, but the civil service - in particular administrative officers - will clearly form the administration's backbone. Professor Chan said the long-established policymaking process has been shaken by seismic changes in the political landscape since the handover. 'Our political system has failed to cope with the growth of party politics and the aspirations of civil society,' he said. 'After the handover, our long-standing rules and practices in policy formulation were also thrown into disarray. The role of the Executive Council as gatekeeper has been weakened. The political order has not yet been restored.' Launching his election campaign this year, Mr Tsang pledged to build a new Hong Kong with 'a new, open government', 'new democratic system' and new governing mindset. Meanwhile, the configuration of powers among political parties and factions in the legislative and district councils is set to undergo changes following the Legco and district council elections. If - and it's a mighty if - a road map and timetable for universal suffrage are fixed in the next five years, the political scene will no doubt become even more lively and volatile, as more profound changes will be the order of the day. Case 1 May 2007 Officials have to make a last-minute policy reversal to salvage a housing bill facing defeat in Legco. To get the legislation passed, the administration agrees to a 10 per cent cap on any increase in public housing rent. Then housing minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung reportedly cites 'political reality' four times when he explains the administration's concession at a Housing Authority meeting. Pushing hardest for the cap was a normally administration-friendly party - the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Case 2 December 2005 Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen suffers a severe blow when pan-democratic legislators join forces and veto his blueprint for elections in 2007-2008. Mr Tsang's intense lobbying drive to lure six members from the pan-democratic camp to say 'yes' to the bill's passage fails when the democrats stand united. Case 3 July 2003 The administration of chief executive Tung Chee-hwa announces the shelving of the contentious national security bill, following the resignation from Exco of Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun. Mr Tien decides to break with Exco and oppose the bill after the 500,000-strong rally on July 1, 2003.