Emboldened by the success of his debut in direct elections in 2004, James Tien Pei-chun was full of hope for the future of the Liberal Party he had led since 1998. At a post-Legislative Council election press conference, Mr Tien pledged that the party would reach out to a wider cross-section of voters before the next election, in 2008. Asked if he would be interested in contesting the chief executive election, he said the possibility of his party coming to power should not be ruled out. While maintaining their domination of trades-based seats, grabbing eight, Mr Tien and another party leader, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, cruised to victory in New Territories East and New Territories West, respectively, in 2004. With 10 seats, the Liberals were the second-largest party in Legco. One month after their disastrous 2008 results, the Liberal representation is down to three, following the departures of four long-time members after a bitter power struggle triggered by Mr Tien's resignation. The Liberal Party was formed by business elites to counter the domination of the Democrats in direct polls. But 15 years later, it finds itself plunged into the abyss, leaving a host of questions about what went wrong, where its future lies - if it has one - and the role of business in politics. Founding chairman Allen Lee Peng-fei said the leadership had only themselves to blame. 'The party has departed from 'people-based' principles on a range of issues. They opposed the minimum wage, the competition law and a Legco inquiry into the case of Leung Chin-man,' he said, referring to the former housing chief's move to a private developer. 'These are just the recent cases.' 'Why did people vote for James Tien in 2004? They thought he did what the people wanted by opposing Article 23. Now they feel the party only speaks for the business sector - not common businesses but tycoons. 'In the last four years, both James Tien and Selina Chow have done little district work. They took for granted that voters would vote for them because of their high public profiles. They were seriously wrong,' he added. Mr Lee became a political commentator after he stepped down as chair of the party following his defeat in 1998. 'The recent power struggle is the last thing I want. There can only be one conclusion. They are only concerned about their own interests,' Andrew Brandler, chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, said the Liberals were too narrowly associated with big business. 'They need to align broadly with the society, particularly the middle class, professionals and small businesses,' he said. Mr Brandler was adamant there was a place for a centre-right political party in Hong Kong. 'There is a need for the business community to wake up. The days of them exerting influence behind the scenes belongs to the past. It's clearly not the way Hong Kong will operate in future,' he said. 'The business sector must sit down and think about the way forward. It's bad for Hong Kong if the business sector is marginalised [politically].' Mr Brandler said it was wishful thinking for some in the business circle to assume that 'China will never allow universal suffrage to happen; 2020 is not very far away. The business community [had] better start preparing'. The Liberal Party has not lacked urgency in starting to prepare for the arrival of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 and all of Legco in 2020. Mr Tien and Mrs Chow both sought re-election this year. Mr Tien's brother, Michael Tien Puk-sun, made his election debut in the Kowloon West seat, while long-time district councillor Alice Lam Chui-lin contested the Hong Kong Island seat. Speaking to the South China Morning Post early this year, James Tien voiced plans to contest all geographical constituencies in 2012. However, the rout last month in the geographical polls has cast doubt on those plans, along with the party's future and Mr Tien's role. Having stressed after the election defeat that he was determined to bow out, Mr Tien told the Post he was unsure now. 'Some people don't want me to stay to help unite the party. They labelled me as 'super lord'. I'd just wanted to stay away after the election. But some party members would like me to play a role in securing a smooth change of the leadership. 'I don't know what I should do to help pick up the pieces now,' he added. Mr Tien said he was convinced the party had a future role to play. But he noted it had to find better ways of fulfilling the wish lists of their three major constituents - big business conglomerates such as property developers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the middle class. 'There are conflicts between the middle class and developers on issues like the transparency of information about saleable areas of properties. Our stance on the Legco inquiry into the Leung Chin-man case has also disappointed middle-class voters. 'SMEs are concerned about a statutory minimum wage. We share their concerns. But middle-class people are sympathetic to low-income earners. We lost a lot of middle-class votes because of that,' Mr Tien said. 'It may be better for us if we can remove the baggage of our links with consortiums in 2012.' While affirming the Liberal Party's long-held focus on the business sector, acting chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee said that, in past years, the public had a misconception that it exclusively represented property developers and conglomerates, which had affected its image. 'Just look at our supporters. How many conglomerates and developers do you see? The vast majority of our supporters are small-and-medium enterprises which are the backbone of Hong Kong's economy,' Ms Lau said. 'We have always tried to work for them and the middle-class people, but it was quite a shame that, because of various reasons, we have not been able to achieve that effectively in the past. It was a shame that we were seen as the mouthpiece of big businesses.' Ms Lau also insisted that the party couldn't be bought. 'Although we would welcome anyone who wants to support our party, we will not accept any financial donations with conditions attached. Nobody can buy the Liberal Party with a HK$10 million cheque,' she said, referring to previous annual donations the party had received from property developers. Ms Lau, who is in the running to chair the party, said the Liberals' direction would not change. 'The party has long pledged to go down the path of direct elections and it is not something we will sacrifice.' Concern about the party reversing its position on this issue, surfaced after the election, especially after remarks by party member David Lie Tai-chong. He suggested the Liberals should first consolidate their influence in the functional constituencies by working closer with other non-elected lawmakers before considering whether to fight in direct elections. Mr Lie had claimed to be acting as the messenger between Beijing and the party, but he denied acting on the central government's behalf in this row. A source close to the party said: 'There's a line of thinking among big businesses that the Liberal Party should stay away from direct elections, maintain their stronghold in functional constituencies. They then should act as the bad guy to block the abolition of [those] seats.' But Sophie Leung Lau Yau-fun, one of the trio who quit the party, denied there were deep differences on these issues, attributing the split to personality clashes and power politics. 'The Liberal Party's direction is generally sound. It was just that nobody made it work in the party,' Mrs Leung said. 'The party cared more about power politics and how to fight for its interest rather than for the general public's interest.' While admitting her new group had yet to come up with a concrete plan on how to consolidate an alliance with like-minded business-sector lawmakers, Mrs Leung said they would try to retain their power base within business. 'We are not talking about solely representing business interests but, for a healthy economy, the business sector must have its voice. We also need to give the middle class the opportunity to rise up the social ladder. 'Before we can gain public trust - a prerequisite the Liberal Party failed to gain - we cannot talk about developing in direct elections,' Mrs Leung said. Some party members said they hoped the leadership would reaffirm their commitment to contesting direct elections and better district work. Doing so, they said, was the only way forward they could support. Leung Chi-wai, the party's only directly elected district councillor in New Territories East, said the party's lack of support for district work had led to Mr Tien's defeat. Ideology was secondary. 'Only with the support of the masses can the party develop,' Mr Leung said. A core party member, who did not want to be named, said the leadership had put excessive time and resources into Legco work at the expense of constituency work. 'We are a bit out of touch with district issues. [Defeat] is a wake-up call. After the passing of the storm, we have a clearer idea about our direction,' the member said. 'We are convinced society does not want polarised politics. They would like to see the business sector and middle class taking part in direct elections. 'There are ups and downs in the development of political parties. The most important thing is you have a group of people who are committed to our beliefs.' A soul-searching retreat for members is scheduled for next month following the election of chairman and vice-chairmen. Asked what the party could do to find itself, Mr Lee said: 'I honestly don't know ... But if they continue to bow to pressure from the government and dance to the tune of the [central government's] liaison office, they are finished.'