The Liberal Party yesterday announced it was backing Henry Tang Ying-yen, the party's former founding member, making it the first establishment faction to declare its favoured chief executive candidate.
The support comes around a month before the nomination period for the city's top post is due to start.
Speaking after a party meeting, chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee said members agreed that all 29 votes of the party in the 1,194-strong Election Committee - which will select the city's next leader on March 25 - would go to Tang. She said the party would inform its allies, numbering around 50, of the decision.
'We think Henry Tang puts more emphasis on economic development, while Leung Chun-ying fares not as well as Tang,' said Lau, a lawmaker. 'Since the Liberal Party is dedicated to supporting economic development, we think [Tang] shares a vision close to ours.
'Another consideration is that [Tang] has a track record. In the past, he did listen to some of our ideas on economic development policies and put them in force,' she said.
Tang helped found the party before joining the administration in 2002 as secretary for commerce, industry and technology.
The other two main pro-establishment groups - the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions - have yet to endorse a candidate. They hold 147 and 59 votes respectively in the Election Committee.
After the committee's subsector election last month, Tang and pan-democratic candidate Albert Ho Chun-yan are expected to secure the required 150 nominations to stand for election in March. Nominations will run from February 14 to 29.
Tang's main rival, Leung Chun-ying, said yesterday that the Liberal Party's decision was 'not surprising'. While Leung has seemingly failed to secure the required number of votes, he expressed confidence that he would be able to muster enough support before the deadline.
A recent poll by Baptist University found Leung ahead of Tang with a support rate of 27.8 per cent, though the popularity gap between the pair had narrowed to 6.5 percentage points. The Liberal Party's support was timed to further narrow this gap, said Dixon Sing Ming, a social science professor from the University of Science and Technology.
The top candidates have clashed over policy, most recently on the issue of illegal housing structures. While visiting Tung Tau Tsuen in Yuen Long yesterday, Tang said compromise and negotiation were needed to resolve the problem, making no mention of his earlier suggestion to extend height limits of village houses to nine storeys.
'The so-called illegal structures have their unique historical backgrounds,' he said. 'We ... [must] also respect the indigenous residents' rights as laid down in the Basic Law.'
But Leung, campaigning in Cheung Sha Wan, dismissed his rival's idea. 'I have never heard that illegal structures in village houses are protected by the Basic Law. There is only one set of laws in Hong Kong. We should [all] abide by [them].'