Balancing act

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am


The chief executive election is over, but the more challenging and tumultuous part of the change of government has only just begun. Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying isn't starting from the same point as his two predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, both of whom enjoyed a comfortable popularity rating of around 70 per cent when elected, as well as unified support within the pro-establishment camp.

Public sentiment against the 'small circle' nature of the election, especially among the younger generation and the middle class, has risen quickly. More than 220,000 people took part in the mock poll on the eve of the election, and more than half cast a blank vote to indicate no confidence in the system.

At one point, Leung's popularity rating had climbed to 50 per cent, but then dropped back amid allegations about his integrity, especially following the as-yet-unsubstantiated accusations by his rival Henry Tang Ying-yen about what he had said in the Executive Council nine years ago. This caused concern about his willingness to safeguard Hong Kong's core values. Despite all these doubts, Leung has held on to a support rating of 35 per cent in public opinion polls, still well ahead of Tang and the pandemocrat Albert Ho Chun-yan.

We will never know how the three candidates would have fared if there had been a real popular election. Sceptics said the writing was already on the wall even before Sunday because of Beijing's strong influence on the Election Committee members. But the writing is equally on the wall that Hong Kong cannot afford to go through yet another saga like this one - the committee was discredited because of insider jockeying, and allegations and scandals within the pro-establishment camp, who dominate the committee.

The central government should recognise that implementing universal suffrage to elect the chief executive in 2017 and the whole of the Legislative Council in 2020 is the first necessary step to pull Hong Kong out of the political impasse and restore the legitimacy of governance institutions.

The way the election was reported in the media, and the negative campaigning and all kinds of allegations - both substantiated and unsubstantiated - that dominated public discussions, have caused increasing scepticism and distrust of the governance institutions. Such election reporting and discussions are disappointing but not unusual; they will probably become the order of the day when universal suffrage arrives in 2017. Hong Kong people are experiencing the teething problems of transition from the politics of anointment to the politics of election.

Hopefully, the 2017 election will induce more policy debates, because once ordinary people have a vote that they know can make a difference to their future, they will not be alienated onlookers following the election like a television soap opera.

Contrary to earlier speculation, even this small-circle election displayed uncertainties and unexpected shifts in alliance and support. Such events might have been shocking to those who expected a smooth sailing, but they are quite normal in popular elections. The earlier all parties get used to such uncertainties the better, because a true election is never one where the results can be written before the race starts. Hong Kong's people, and political parties and camps should all learn good lessons from this time round and become better prepared for a democratic election in five years' time.

With only one-third support and amid a large dose of public scepticism, Leung will indeed be handicapped as the new chief executive. He will not enjoy any post-election honeymoon. He may encounter difficulty in forming a ministerial team that's broad enough politically and he will be guaranteed a hostile opposition camp campaigning hard against his administration in the next five years, especially in the upcoming Legislative Council election.

So Leung has to prove to the community that those doubts about his leadership are misplaced or unfounded. He should make his commitment to democratisation clear in no uncertain terms. It is encouraging that he pledged in his post-election speech that he expects to take part in the 2017 direct election to be baptised by universal suffrage.

Constitutionally, the chief executive has dual accountability - to the special administrative region on the one hand, and to the central government on the other. Beijing's preference and the local public's preference may at times be at variance, and it is the role of the chief executive to work towards a way that can balance well the interests concerned and gain the trust of both sides.

From day one of his election campaign, Leung positioned himself as a challenger from within the establishment, versus Tang who saw his advantage as providing more continuity of the present policy regime. Sceptics would say that like US President Barack Obama, championing 'yes we can' is easy, but making change happen is quite another business in the reality of power politics.

Leung has the daunting task of delivering change - in the government-people relationship, in constitutional reform, in redefining government-business links, in social policies, and in restructuring our economic base. At the same time, he risks alienating a lot of deeply intertwined establishment and business interests if he pushes for change too drastically.

He has to play both a real reformer - and not let down his supporters, and a preserver - so as not to lose support within the pro-establishment camp. He has to be prominent in safeguarding Hong Kong's core values and institutions. He must also learn to work with the pan-democrat opposition within the legislature, even though he will be the target of their main political campaign over the next five years.

Politics aside, Leung must win the confidence of the people in his rule in three main aspects: first, by addressing the wealth gap that has been worsened by declining social mobility, the overconcentration of wealth, soaring living costs and the lack of retirement protection; second, by addressing the economic gap by expanding opportunities for small- and medium-sized enterprises and professionals; and, third, by adroitly managing Hong Kong-mainland tensions arising from the process of integration.

At the end of the day, Leung's single-most important challenge is to articulate a Hong Kong identity that can appeal to the broad spectrum of seven million people.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank