The Provisional Legislative Council's 20-hour debate on the rules for the 1998 elections has ushered in a fresh phase of party politics in Hong Kong. A new alliance of pro-Beijing elements is poised to replace the democrats as the dominant force in the legislature.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance (HKPA) managed to scratch one another's back in the crucial debate over substantial arrangements for the elections next year. With the tacit endorsement of the Heung Yee Kuk, the two parties have shaped the electoral rules virtually at will.
Led by lawyer Ambrose Lau Hon-chuen, the HKPA has left the impression it has been taking its cue from the DAB on issues of public concern since the provisional legislature came into being.
Despite recent efforts to establish ward offices at the districts, the HKPA is still regarded as elitist and enjoys limited popular support at the grassroots.
The DAB, headed by Tsang Yok-sing, is widely accepted as the best-organised party in the local political arena. The unofficial merger of the two parties has turned them into the most formidable force in the peculiar electoral process in Hong Kong.
Since the latest round of political musical chairs, the two parties have each had 11 seats in the Provisional Legco. Despite their denial of any under-the-table deals, they voted as a bloc in favour of one another's amendments to the Legislative Council Bill.
Their performance in the council over the weekend has confirmed speculation that the HKPA is now wedded to the DAB in a bid to fortify their positions in the run-up to next May's elections.
Opponents of the two parties have quickly dubbed the new couple the "Democratic Progressive Party", after the opposition party in Taiwan which has been promoting a policy of independence from the mainland.
Earlier observations suggested that the electoral framework, as dictated by the Preparatory Committee, would result in a divided chamber conducive to the concept of a so-called executive-led government under the leadership of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.
It was predicted that none of the main political entities - the DAB, the HKPA, the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democratic Federation, the New Hong Kong Alliance, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, the Democratic Party and its allies, or the rural forces - could command more than one-fifth of the 60 Legco seats up for grabs.
But much political regrouping has occurred in the three months since the SAR was established. The Liberal Democratic Federation, founded by former councillor Maria Tam Wai-chu, has, in effect, been absorbed into the HKPA.
Meanwhile, the Heung Yee Kuk - supposed to represent indigenous residents in the New Territories - started recruiting advisers from another pro-Beijing group, among whom Lau Kong-wah, a recent DAB recruit.
Given Hong Kong's reunification with China, the kuk has found it increasingly difficult to justify the privileges extended to it under an appeasement policy of the former colonial administration. The kuk is understandably eager to find a more reliable partner in the new-look legislature.
This may explain why the kuk's chairman, Lau Wong-fat, chose not to attend the crucial debate instead of siding with his own Liberal Party in opposition to the DAB and HKPA coalition.
The emergence of the so-called Democratic Progressive Party has in fact left the Liberal Party out in the cold. The party's position is not only undermined by the kuk but also by the change of loyalty among some of its key members.
Ngai Shiu-kit - first returned to Legco by the Chinese Manufacturers' Association in 1985 - used to be a central committee member of the Liberal Party. He was active in the Co-operative Resources Centre before it evolved into the Liberal Party. Now he has switched over to the HKPA and cast his ballot accordingly. The Democrats used to be the number one political enemy of the DAB, the HKPA and the Liberal Party, before the changeover of sovereignty.
Now that the Democrats were ostracised from the provisional legislature, the Liberals and new pro-Beijing coalition aimed their missiles at one another. They have traded personal insults during the marathon debate, and the wounds inflicted on both sides are unlikely to be healed in the foreseeable future.
The Liberals mustered 10 votes against the DAB's initiative to expand the electorate for the social services functional constituency. The tally still ended up 27 to 23 in favour of its rivals.
Even the administration could do little to change the odds. Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung had warned the parties that their attempts to revise the electoral rules would impose undue difficulties later for voter registration. He also cautioned the assembly that the unwanted amendments might even delay the elections.
In spite of the Chief Executive's repeated emphasis on executive-led government, the administration's advice had little bearing on the parties' decision when their own political interests were at stake.
Legislator Tam Yiu-chung, who doubles as an Executive Councillor, honoured the convention of collective responsibility and voted against his DAB comrades' proposal to tamper with the functional constituency. But his gesture was symbolic, and had no practical impact on the final outcome.
The net effect of the amendments enacted under the DAB-HKPA pact is that their members now stand a better chance in a couple of functional constituencies. More significantly, the two parties succeeded in making it obligatory for all 800 members of the future Electoral Committee to pick 10 candidates.
Under the Government's original proposal, committee members were given the flexibility to select up to 10 aspirants for Legco. If a member found only six contestants were worthy of his support, he or she could simply leave four blanks on the ballot.
Had the government model been adopted, parties would have been inclined to vote only for their own choices, and not to exercise their remaining options. This could leave their competitors less likely to get elected.
But the revised arrangement makes trade-offs between parties possible.
Last weekend's handshake between the DAB and the HKPA could just be a prelude to more of the same before next May.
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