One-sided election shows Hong Kong leadership contest is now a whole new ball game

John Tsang had hoped to pull off a ‘Barcelona’ comeback against the odds, but popularity no longer seems to be a decisive factor for Beijing – which analysts fear might discourage other contenders in future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 11:37pm

In his concession speech on Sunday, John Tsang Chun-wah quipped that his chief executive election bid could have been another Barcelona – a reference to the Spanish team’s stunning comeback against Paris St-Germain in a recent Champions League football match.

“I once thought perhaps I could turn the tables by the end of the match, just like Barcelona did in that epic game,” the former financial secretary said.

“But the fact is, you might not be able to win for sure no matter how good your team played, even when you have support from fans and keep scoring.”

Tsang, who led in almost every public opinion poll lost the match on Sunday to arch-rival Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the former chief secretary seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate.

He won 365 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee – mostly from the pan-democrats – against Lam’s 777 tickets from the pro-establishment bloc.

While some scholars have described Lam’s victory as “a defeat of the majority’s view”, the election result also prompted many to ask if it would deter capable figures from the pro-establishment camp from joining future races.

“The election has signalled to all aspirants that they have absolutely no chance of winning if they are not heavily trusted by the central government, regardless of their capability,” Liberal Party leader Felix Chung Kwok-pan, a supporter of Tsang, told the Post.

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Chung recalled the popularity of candidates used to be a yardstick Beijing cared about – at least in the last chief executive poll in 2012 – but Sunday’s result threw the criterion out the window.

Five years ago, former government No 2 Henry Tang Ying-yen was originally Beijing’s favoured candidate in the race, but his rival Leung Chun-ying eventually managed to turn the tide after Tang’s popularity plunged amid a series of scandals related to an illegal basement in his home.

Beijing made a U-turn two weeks ahead of polling day and called on voters to back Leung, who was more popular.

Leung’s success proved underdogs could make a bid for the job even if they were not Beijing’s initial choice, Chung said.

But popularity and capability were not the decisive criteria now, lamented Chung, who added: “This election, everybody knows that the popularity and capability of the candidates no longer matter ... Who would now consider seeking the top job?”

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If entering the race became too risky a proposition, capable people would stay away and the quality of talent at the top could itself decline, analysts warned.

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung feared future chief executive elections would become a form of anointment by Beijing.

“In previous polls, the central government had at least allowed several candidates [from the Beijing-friendly bloc] to run, yet Tsang only managed to obtain some 35 nominations from the camp this time.

The central government wants to fully dictate the election results
Wu Chi-wai, Democratic Party

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee only got around 20 tickets,” he said, referring to the New People’s Party chairwoman who dropped out for lack of nominations.

Of the 365 votes Tsang received, only a few dozen were believed to be from moderates and the business sector with the bulk from pan-democrats.

Beijing’s intransigence might partly be attributed to its reluctance to let pan-democrats have a say in the poll, Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said.

“The central government wants to fully dictate the election results,” he said.

At the press conference on Sunday, Tsang’s Barcelona analogy prompted questions on whether he found the game unfair.

“I lost because my opponent scored more than me ... There is foul play in every match,” he said.

Yet even he found “no reason to believe” the outcome stemmed from Beijing’s involvement. Tsang’s reticence to lay blame on any hidden hand can only heighten the sense of the risk involved in the undertaking of running for chief executive – to anyone contemplating pulling off another Barcelona in the future.