HONG KONG - With the majority of opposition lawmakers looking to stay on in Parliament for another year after the current Legislative Council (Legco) term ends, differences that have surfaced within the pan-democratic camp are not expected to escalate, observers believe.
Associate Professor Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) said he is "only slightly worried" about the prolonged internal bickering among the pan-dem lawmakers.
He believes the risk of further internal polarisation, which is not new, has been slightly moderated by the results of a poll released on Tuesday (Sept 28).
The poll was commissioned by the Democratic Party as a barometer for the pan-dem lawmakers to decide if they will keep their 23 seats in the 70-member Legco, or leave when their four-year term ends on Wednesday. The next Legco session starts on Oct 14.
About 2,500 people participated in the survey last week, of which 730 said they were supporters of the opposition camp.
The survey found that 47.1 per cent of the respondents said the opposition lawmakers ought to stay on in Legco. This is 1.3 percentage points more than those who supported the lawmakers leaving.
Prof Sing noted that even though the public can feel that general freedoms in Hong Kong, including the right to assemble and protest, have been broadly restrained with the national security law, there is no clear roadmap on how to launch an effective political struggle for democracy.
So the poll represents "a sense of greater consciousness and the prevalence of pragmatism" among the people, he said.
"The pan-dems can then ride on this change in the public attitude and justify their continued role in the legislature," he added.
On Tuesday, 15 out of the 23 opposition lawmakers, most of whom belong to traditional political parties, declared their decision to stay on Legco for the coming year.
This followed China's decision in August to extend the term of Legco by at least a year, putting an end to a legislative vacuum in the territory. Legco elections were initially scheduled for Sept 6, but the Hong Kong government postponed the polls till Sept 5 next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said the announcement by the pan-dem camp showed that it is weakened, as there are members of the group who cannot work together.
He noted that there are those like localist lawmaker Chu Hoi Dick who are leaving to be accountable to those supporters who would have preferred them to leave.
"The issue now is that... those who stay on will not have the same kind of power (or effect in Legco) as before because they cannot do more with less so a lot of new Bills can now be passed. Although it's sad (there will be no checks), it's the reality," said Prof Wu.
The pan-dem camp's new convenor, Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi Wai, noted that staying is the lesser of two evils, as doing so would at least still allow the opposition some power to delay objectionable policies.
"We can at least have some power, some force to fight against the government," he said.
Opposition lawmakers were fretting over whether they should resign en masse or stay on, as some believed staying on could be viewed as bowing to pressure from Beijing. The more extreme ones believed in quitting as a way to delegitimise Hong Kong's postponement of the Legco election.
In signs of cracks within the camp, Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan on Tuesday announced her exit from the party for "personal reasons". She will also resign as a lawmaker.
Two other lawmakers - Mr Ray Chan and Mr Chu - had announced on Monday their decision to resign.
The pair, viewed as more extreme in the camp, rose to prominence on the back of the localism movement in Hong Kong after the Umbrella Movement in 2014.