Beijing gets its two-horse race as Tsang backs out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am


After days of apparent indecision, Tsang Yok-sing - Legislative Council president and a Beijing loyalist - finally said yesterday he would not run for chief executive of Hong Kong.

The outcome of all that wavering could not have pleased Beijing more. Tsang's step back from the brink not only allows Beijing to secure its desired 'two-horse' race, but also avoids a possible abortive election, as well as maintaining the primacy of executive-led governance in Hong Kong.

'I don't have enough time to work on a substantial platform,' said Tsang, well aware that the nomination period for the city's top job ends tomorrow. 'Neither do I have enough time to let the public get to know me better and give me a fair evaluation.'

He added that joining the race might trigger concern about party politics - which is supposed to be absent from the chief executive race - and could affect prospects for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in the September Legislative Council elections. Tsang is the honorary chairman of the DAB.

Now Tsang will return to his powerful position as president of Legco, and Beijing can have a moment's respite from what has become a vicious mud-slinging, not to say muckraking, campaign.

From the central government's point of view, the race was spinning out of control with too many candidates. Now it can return to what Beijing initially wanted - essentially a two-horse race between former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and former Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, even though both are still mired in scandal. This reversal from chaos to some sort of order brings to mind the Chinese saying that 'things revert back to their opposite when they reach the extreme'.

With the recent scandals involving Tang, Leung and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, lawmakers have become emboldened, repeatedly threatening to invoke their privilege power for full explanations from all three.

That's fair enough in the public's eyes. But it touches a raw nerve in Beijing, which has long emphasised the importance of 'executive-led governance' in Hong Kong. It insists that is the spirit of the Basic Law and that any democratic development in the city should not weaken this principle.

This insistence on executive-led, not legislature-led, governance explains why six legislators from the pro-establishment camp were called into the central government's liaison office last Friday for an 'exchange of views'.

In fact, it was suggested to them that they not back a Legislative Council move to invoke its 'privilege power' and launch a full investigation into Leung's role in the West Kowloon arts hub contest.

Leung may want full disclosure but what Beijing cares more about is a swelling of Legco power, which could open the floodgates to investigations into whatever it thinks necessary. Tsang's decision not to join the chief executive race keeps a strong hand on Legco and prevents a new round of political infighting.

With the race back to two horses, Beijing avoids another minefield - a possible abortion of the March 25 election. That may sound absurd but it's no false alarm. There is an 'ABC' campaign spreading through town - Anyone But CY. With Tsang backing out, it will be easier for Beijing to persuade undecided voters to support either Tang or Leung.

This is important because Secretary of Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen earlier revealed that if no candidate wins more than half the votes in the first ballot on March 25, a second round of voting would be conducted that afternoon. If still no candidate gets enough votes, the election will be declared invalid.

The Election Committee must then hold a new election 46 days later, on May 6, with any candidate - including Tang and Leung - again needing to seek at least 150 new nominations.

In that case, as Tsang said yesterday, he will have another 'rethink'.

But this backup plan may not please Beijing - and it will do Hong Kong's democratic aspirations no good at all.