Let the horse-trading begin for the 2012 election
The next chief executive election is still nearly two years away but, already, speculation is mounting about who the leading candidates will be on both sides of the political spectrum.
This in turn raises the fascinating question as to how the two camps will go about selecting their preferred candidate, or indeed whether they have even started to think through the problem.
Let's start with the members of the pan-democratic camp. They are going to struggle to collect the 150 nominations needed to field a single candidate. If the various factions co-operate, it should just be possible, as was shown in 2007 when Alan Leong Kah-kit secured the 100 signatures necessary to enter that contest. If they don't co-operate - that is, if the Democratic Party and the Civic Party fail to put recent disputes behind them - they won't be able to secure enough nominations for even one name to go forward.
Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that the two strongest claims to leadership come from Audrey Eu Yuet-mee - who thrashed the incumbent chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in a recent live television debate - and Democrats chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, who has made himself almost unique among local politicians (and that includes most ministers) by actually achieving something. Egos will come into this, which always complicates matters, but if an amicable agreement cannot be reached then the camp could fall back on a device implied by its name: members could decide democratically which candidate to throw their combined weight behind by organising some sort of primary election. How this could work, including questions about who would be eligible to vote, would be difficult to work out, but the problems are not insurmountable.
It is when we turn to look at what might loosely be called the 'pro-government' camp that the fun really begins. The first problem is that there are so many names being floated and none at present seems to have the unambiguous backing of Beijing.
At various times, as many as seven names have been suggested as possible candidates. Should they all run, with the lowest vote-getter dropping out each round, until there are only two left standing? Or should the top two go straight into the final clash?
Can we be sure that, after the final primary vote, the loser's ballots will go automatically to his rival in the face-off with the pan-democrats in the election proper? Or is it possible - whisper it if you dare - that the runner-up could do a deal to secure democratic support and confound the outcome of the primary by running again in the election proper and adding his own votes to those from the democratic camp, and thereby securing a win?
Once started, this train of thought runs on an interesting track. How about if, instead of putting up their own candidate, those in the democratic camp were from the outset to hold talks with the leading pro-government candidates with a view to swinging their weight behind one of them - in effect holding a primary to decide which of their opponents was least objectionable (to put it negatively) or most worthy of support (to put a positive spin on it)? Can we even be sure that some candidates are not canvassing such a possibility already? And what price - the currency being Executive Council posts, ministerial appointments and policy commitments - might a pro-government candidate be prepared to pay to secure that democratic support?
Is it even possible we could see an actual democratic election? This is after all Hong Kong, the city where anything is possible. Somewhere in Zhongnanhai - or at least Sai Wan - did I just hear an alarm bell ring?
Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong