Academics and civic groups yesterday questioned using by-elections as a referendum on universal suffrage, warning that such a plan could give the impression there was weakening support for democracy, derailing 20 years of progress. While there were also expressions of support for initiating a de facto referendum, the polarised opinions highlight how far pan-democrats still have to go before achieving a consensus on how to proceed on political reform. The Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats support the resignation of a lawmaker from each of the five geographical constituencies to use the ensuing by-elections as a de facto referendum to measure support for the 2017 and 2020 universal suffrage models. The Democratic Party has yet to reach a decision on this strategy, while individual pan-democratic lawmakers have also been hesitant, fearing that any action to quit the legislature would not sit well with constituents who voted them in. 'If you lose all five seats, then you really should resign en masse for bringing down the democracy movement,' said Professor Ma Ngok, a political analyst at Chinese University and member of the Democratic Development Network. He said experience showed that political reform had little significance during by-elections, and the plan might backfire by giving the impression the desire for democracy was waning. The chairman of the Democratic Foundation, Alan Lung Ka-lun, also opposed the plan, saying the pan-democrats risked alienating supporters because the radical voices were drowning out moderates. In his policy address on Wednesday last week, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced that the consultation on political reform would begin next month. Pan-democrats have said they would reject a consultation document or reform package that failed to resolve the ultimate universal suffrage models in 2017 and 2020. But they remain divided on how to pressure the administration into doing so. In an interview with ATV, broadcast last night, Tsang further confirmed fears that pan-democrats' talk of resignations could lose them the moral high ground. 'All I can say is that I feel exceedingly sad,' he said, commenting on another call that all 23 pan-democrat lawmakers should resign if the administration does not come up with more concrete proposals for 2017 and 2020. 'The most important thing for us in advancing democracy here is to persevere. Now we have the timetable, we have to make sure we deliver it ... first of all we should get the system improved in 2012, and then work on the nitty-gritty for universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020.' During day-long roundtable discussions with civic groups yesterday, the league's chairman, Wong Yuk-man, said the de facto referendum plan was intended to return the decision-making power on political reform to the public by allowing them to express clearly their desire for universal suffrage. The league has printed more than 200,000 pamphlets explaining its referendum plan, while the Civic Party will begin distributing material today. 'We are just waiting for the Democratic Party,' Wong said. Democratic Party member James To Kun-sun said opinions within the party remained divided, and he had told party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan he thought the movement would lose more than it gained if it went down the path of resignations. But he said his opinion had changed slightly recently. 'The central authorities have also to consider whether they can afford to lose. What if the results come back, and not just 60 per cent support us, but 75 per cent or 80?' he said, adding this concern would force the central authorities to negotiate. But Ho said he was not optimistic the threat of success in a de facto referendum would have this effect. The party would decide whether to support the plan next month or in December.