Caped Crusader Saves Fallen Woman

This has got to rank as one of the most exciting - and unlikely -- superhero stories of our times.

A top female politician gambles big and loses spectacularly. Just when it seems she is done for and nothing can save her, in swoops her arch rival - he one she was trying to beat in the first place - and carries her off to safety.

What a script! Who wrote the screenplay? And - most important - what happens next?

Earlier this year, one of the founders of the Civic Party, barrister Audrey Eu, announced that the party had decided to do something quite unexpected: it would leapfrog over its closer ideological partner the Democratic Party, and form a temporary alliance with the more radical League of Social Democrats. Five sitting LegCo Members from the two parties - one from each geographical constituency - would resign to force a series of by-elections which would constitute a de facto referendum on the pace of democracy.

The alliance declared that a turnout rate of over 50% would prove that the people of Hong Kong wanted much faster progress than outlined in the government's political reform package, and specifically wanted abolition of the Functional Constituencies.

The scheme was criticised by many including this columnist. Certainly the Government's proposals are inadequate and in particular the failure even to begin the process of democratising the FCs by scrapping corporate voting is neglect of duty plain and simple. But we all knew the FCs would still be around for 2012 because Beijing - whose agreement is necessary for whatever reform package is eventually put forward - had stipulated this in advance. And we surely did not need a so-called "referendum" to tell us yet again what local people have been saying clearly for decades: they are ready for and want the right to elect their Chief Executive and they want a fully democratic legislature.

The scheme effectively collapsed and became a pointless exercise when what are loosely called the "pro-Government" parties decided - with the help of some guidance from the Central Government's Liaison Office in Sai Wan - to boycott the whole affair.

The alliance pressed on willy nilly and lowered the turnout rate which would constitute "victory" to 30 - 35%. Subsequent clarifications saw this target lowered still further, to 25 - 30%. By any measure, the final turnout figure of 17% was a disaster. The Civic Party lost all credibility (The LSD on the other hand only confirmed their reputation as political spoilers).

Paradoxically, the people of Hong Kong had once again demonstrated their political maturity by not participating in a charade. They want a meaningful say, and are not impressed by gesture politics.

Could this have been the end of Miss Eu's political career? Quite possibly it could but suddenly, to everyone's surprise - including that of the Liaison Office which appeared to be totally unsighted -- the Chief Executive's Office offered a one-on-one televised debate between her and CE Donald Tsang. Saved from oblivion in the nick of time. Superman had struck again and the fallen woman had been rescued.

But wait, what is this going on in a separate arena? Moderate democrats who wanted to hammer out a compromise so as not to repeat the failure of 2005 were talking to the Government about possible changes to the package that would allow them reluctantly to support it. But having heard Chief Secretary Henry Tang and Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Stephen Lam's views, the moderates - and in particular the Democratic Party itself - decided they needed to talk to Beijing direct. Not surprising: why talk to the monkey when the organ grinder himself is available.

The talks in Sai Wan seemed to be edging towards a possible deal that would produce enough votes to secure passage of the Government Bill. But the televised debate proposal has knocked the stuffing out of the moderates and completely undercut them. They have tried to be reasonable and have been left out, while the hardliners with their all or nothing approach have been rewarded with a high profile political prize: the chance to go head to head with the Chief Executive. To protect their own position as guardians of the public’s democratic future, the moderates must now harden their stance and in particular have already demanded participation in the public debate. Whether the debate goes ahead, who participates and what format applies - these matters are now all up in the air. But one thing is clear: getting an agreement now is going to be even harder in an atmosphere of renewed distrust.

This was all easily foreseeable. Yet it appears not to have been foreseen. Perhaps Superman's cape blew up in the wind and obscured his vision.

Or possibly - just possibly - someone was fed up with all the focus on Sai Wan and wanted to remind all concerned that the occupant of Upper Albert Road was still a power to be taken into account. Kryptonite permitting of course.