Tightrope to walk after an election about perceptions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am


It was his election to lose and he lost it. Henry Tang Ying-yen didn't lose because he lacked chief executive material. We'll never know now what kind of a leader he would have made. Tang lost because the people just wouldn't forgive him for the scandals that hounded him. And they saw him as too close to the tycoons.

Leung Chun-ying didn't win because he's a proven leader or because he was free of scandals. He has far less leadership experience than Tang. And many believe the scandals that swirled around him - claims that he involved triads in the election and tried to stifle free speech - were more alarming than Tang's illegal basement and infidelity. Leung won because the scandals just didn't stick as much. The people saw him as one of their own. And he had huge last-minute help from Beijing, which strong-armed loyalists into voting for him.

This was not an election about the issues. It was an election about perception. Elections can only be fought on the issues when people have a vote; they will vote for the candidate they think best serves their interests, even if that candidate has political baggage.

But when the people are denied a vote - and therefore denied giving a mandate to the winner on the issues that concern them - perception of the candidates becomes the dominating factor. Such perceptions mattered little in past elections, when Beijing signalled its choice and loyalists in the Election Committee voted accordingly.

But this election was different. Beijing allowed two pro-establishment candidates to compete to make it appear democratic.

That unleashed a mud-slinging match that stunned not only Beijing but also the people. The ugliness of the contest - with scandals that mauled the integrity of Leung and Tang - turned it into a battle to shape public perception. The logic was simple: make public opinion the key factor in the small-circle election. Tang entered the race with built-in political baggage. A top official for 10 years, he was associated with all the failings of the government. The perception was that he would preserve the old order, locking in the unchecked power of the rich class, to which he also belongs.

Leung had long cast himself as representing change, championing grass-roots issues such as affordable housing and the wealth gap. The perception was that, as leader, he would finally shake things up, a perception that helped him top popularity polls.

The contest morphed into a struggle between the classes. Both candidates started off focusing on the issues but the astonishing flood of scandals quickly turned the election into a perception battle of who was most unfit, rather than most fit, to lead.

Tang's defeat is a humiliation for his tycoon backers. Leung's victory would have represented a triumph of public opinion in a small-circle election, but he lost much of that support after Tang's claim. It now represents Beijing's wishes. What's next, now that many believe Beijing stole the election for Leung?

Leung's victory has come with a tightrope which he must walk. Can he make peace with the tycoons, whose support he needs to govern effectively? Will he have the credibility to govern, with Tang's claim still bubbling that he advocated tear-gassing protesters?

With a mock poll showing he only had 18 per cent public support, can he reunite the community to make the changes that are necessary for him to fulfil the promises he made to the grass roots? The people won't give him a long honeymoon to walk this tightrope.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV host. mickchug@gmail.com