Keeping A Poker Face

I hope our Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying is a good poker player. If he is not, he has only three weeks left in which to practice.

On Sunday 9 September our city goes to the polls to elect a new Legislative Council. Of the 70 Members who will be returned, 35 will have been elected by universal suffrage in geographical constituencies, 30 will have been elected through "rotten borough" functional constituencies, and the balance of 5 will be District Councillors returned via the so-called "super seats" in a more or less democratic manner.

There will inevitably be a lot of scrutiny of the results by academics, political commentators and the media, as well as the public at large. The composition will be broken down in a number of ways (new Members versus incumbents returned; men versus women; propensity to support or oppose democratic reform etc.)

But in terms of governing our city successfully over the next four years, the key breakdown will be between the following broad factions: generally pro-establishment, supporters of C Y Leung; generally pro-establishment, non-supporters of C Y Leung; pan democrats generally critical of the establishment, but open to reason selectively; and an anti establishment fringe.

No doubt Mr Leung will have a list of candidates he would like to see win, and another list of those he would hope would lose. But like all the rest of us Mr Leung has only one vote, and he will have to govern with the LegCo he gets, not the one he would have wished to have.

Even before he took up the post of Chief Executive on 1st July, Mr Leung was given an important lesson in political realities: he will not be able to deliver his agenda by relying solely on the first two factions.

His proposal to restructure the government by adding four Ministerial level posts (one for culture, one for technology, and one each for deputies to the Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary) was not endorsed.

But loss of a single battle does not mean loss of the whole war provided the right lessons are learned.

What were the lessons? In the first place, one cause of defeat was that not all the pro establishment forces came to the party at critical moments. They didn’t vote against, they just didn’t turn up.

One – Regina Ip – courageously, and in my view correctly, voted her conscience and abstained even though it cost her a seat on Exco.

But there had been a second opportunity to secure at least a partial win. The Civic Party offered to support immediately creation of the new Culture and Technology posts provided they could have more time to consider the other two.

This offer was spurned by the Chief Executive’s Office for reasons that can only be guessed at. They went for "all or nothing" and got nothing.

As every good poker player knows, the secret to winning over the course of the whole game is not expecting to win every hand but rather knowing which hands to stand on, and which to concede on.

The political equivalent is knowing when to stand and fight, when to retreat, and when to compromise.

The Chief Executive’s team, perhaps for face reasons or perhaps through inexperience, made the wrong judgement call and Mr Leung has lost some chips.

The lessons are all there in history. Everyone remembers that John F Kennedy took a brave and principled stand against racial discrimination when he was President of the United States.

Students of political history know that none of the key legislation was enacted during his time in office. It was only after his shock assassination, when his deputy Lyndon Baines Johnson ("LBJ") took over, that the great "half a loaf" man twisted arms and made the compromises that got Congress to deliver the goods.

And just in case history is not your scene, Kenny Rogers even sang a song which is ostensibly about poker but also has resonance in politics. All together now :"You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them…"