Leung Chun-ying

The battle's just beginning for C.Y.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am


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The most pressing item on chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's agenda is getting his full team ready for his July 1 inauguration, an event to be attended by President Hu Jintao, who will also be in town for the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover.

However, Leung's proposed government restructuring has been hindered by the dramatic filibustering of the government's bill to restrict by-elections, and Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing's dramatic intervention on Thursday does not mean that Leung's plan will get the green light.

Controversy over Tsang's abrupt move to shut down the filibuster triggered even more of a storm, as pan-democrat lawmakers demanded that he step down and questioned whether he had breached his political neutrality. In such a confrontational atmosphere, there is no guarantee that a filibuster will not be used again to halt other initiatives, including Leung's restructuring bill, which is to be submitted to Legco in mid-June.

Failing to get his dream team formed before July 1 would be a 'face-losing' blow for Leung. The sky will not fall. Leung, with his political skills, is expected to find some other way to get things done. More worrying is that the wrestling between the legislature and administration could continue and even intensify.

Beijing has repeatedly stressed that the spirit of the Basic Law is to ensure an executive-led political model in Hong Kong. But, in reality, this has proved to be no more than wishful thinking in the past 15 years. Tension between the executive branch and the legislature is always there. The political reality is the pan-democratic camp controls no more than half the seats, so it is impossible for them vote down a government bill. Thus, turning to extreme means, such as a filibuster, seems natural.

Aiming to block the by-election bill proposed by the current administration, this filibuster in theory did not target Leung. Yet his reaction was the most forceful. He not only realised that his grand restructuring plan now hangs in the balance, he also discovered that his first 'battle' with Legco came much earlier than he expected, even before he takes office.

Leung believes he has a secret weapon - public sentiment. Or, to be more precise, he is confident he can lead public opinion against the filibuster. Leung returned to his campaign trail in the past few weeks, visiting districts, meeting local groups, shaking hands with people in the street. Everywhere, the message was the same: condemn the filibuster, think twice about casting your votes in the September Legco election for those radical candidates. He also wrote to major newspapers, reiterating that his restructuring was to better address the needs of the people. All in all, Leung seems ready to blame the filibustering for any possible setback in his first few months in office.

Turning to the public was his most powerful weapon in the chief executive election campaign. If he had not marshalled public sentiment, he would not have persuaded Beijing to allow him to run and eventually win the top job.

'Leung enjoys meeting ordinary people. He is always in high spirits and in a good mood whenever visiting the neighbourhoods,' said a government official who knows him well.

Advancing his agenda by trying to build up anti-filibuster public sentiment seems to be Leung's only strategy at this stage, but whether it will work is another question.

'While the waters can bear the boat, they can also capsize it,' goes a Chinese saying, 'for if the ruler is the river, his people are the waters of the river.' And public opinion can be unpredictable and uncontrollable.

One unpredictable factor now must be the Tsang Yok-sing controversy. While some have criticised the filibuster as a waste of time, others also question whether the Legco president has abused his power. Tsang may now face impeachment proceedings by the pan-democrats. Leung's appeal to voters may not lead to where he wants. Those who prefer stronger checks and balances may view the filibuster favourably, and support the pan-democratic candidates, especially the few radicals.

How to handle a deteriorating relationship between the executive branch and the legislature will be a lasting battle for Leung in his five-year term. A strong leader such as Leung is likely to rely more on the public to advocate his policies. Yet what's more pressing now is for him to prepare a contingency plan, even though Leung earlier brushed off any plan B for his restructuring.

Public opinion may swing back in his favour, but people are unlikely to tolerate a government that blames others for not getting its job done. After July 1, Leung will find it much more difficult to argue that 'public housing construction is being delayed because my plan to have a new Housing Bureau has been blocked'.