Sitting at his office in Central about seven and a half months ago, legislator James Tien Pei-chun was noticeably unsure about his re-election plan for September. The standard line was that he remained 'open-minded' to the possibility of standing for geographically based direct election. Speaking again at the same office last week, Mr Tien appeared closer to taking a dip into the contest for directly elected seats in the New Territories East (NTE) constituency on September 12. This time, he said he was watching closely the results of opinion polls on the likely contenders before making a final decision by July 22, when the nomination period is due to begin. 'Even if it's not a sure-win case but there's a reasonable chance of success, I will go for [direct election],' he said. Mr Tien, a tycoon and chairman of the Liberal Party, may seem undecided but signs abound that his debut in the geographical poll is only a matter of time with the election machinery geared up and strategy finessed. In the past few months, pictures of Mr Tien featured prominently in a blitz of publicity on voter registration by the party at major stations along the Kowloon-Canton Railway. At weekends during the voter registration drive, he paraded through the New Territories, distributing pamphlets. On Mother's Day, he handed out flowers. With the nomination period drawing nearer, the party has plastered stations along KCR and MTR lines with a fresh blitz of publicity targeted at the middle class. The campaign aims to position the party as one that's in touch with the needs of its constituency and able to offer realistic solutions to their problems rather than just criticise the government for not doing more. One billboard features a blue sky with the question: 'Your children don't like learning English. What can you do? The answer is in sight. Summer 2004 is no longer the same.' These 'party-of-the-people' and 'problem-solver' gimmicks may be set-piece activities for district-based politicians, but for Mr Tien, it is a far stretch from his previous experiences. Going out on the hustings and campaigning for the hearts and minds of ordinary people is a new thing for the man once seen as a business elitist who has entered politics through polls for business constituencies since 1991. Mr Tien, who now represents the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, has emerged as a household name following his controversial decision to resign from the Executive Council (Exco) in the wake of last year's 500,000-strong July 1 protest. He split ranks with Exco after it decided to railroad the national security bill on July 4. His surprise resignation from Exco late on July 6 deepened the political crisis that had engulfed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's administration since July 1. The turnabout meant the government would not have enough votes to push through the bill at the Legislative Council. In the small hours of July 7, the administration was forced to withdraw the bill after a crisis meeting at government headquarters. Within hours, Mr Tien had become a hero, albeit an accidental one. Opinion polls showed a surge in the popularity of Mr Tien and the Liberal Party. Inside government headquarters, there was a sense of betrayal, however. A former senior official described Mr Tien's sudden about-turn as 'dishonourable' and 'irresponsible'. The indefinite delay of the legislation on Article 23 has caused more friction in mainland-Hong Kong relations yet Mr Tien remains adamant he made the right decision. 'Our opposition has detonated a political mega bomb ... Beijing felt very angry because they had been told it would be okay if they stuck to the original plan. If the government had not deferred the bill, it would have brought about social instability,' he said. 'It's all history now. Beijing has expressed support for our election plan.' Faced with a more powerful pan-democratic force, Beijing and the Tung administration are keen to encourage more government supporters and sympathisers to join the fray. In view of his increased popularity and improved image, some analysts say Mr Tien stands a reasonable chance of winning one of the seven seats in the New Territories East constituency. The leading businessman tasted his first victory in the first district council elections in 2000. He won a seat in the Peak constituency, where he lives. Mr Tien said he felt good about mingling with people in the streets. 'Over the past year, I've had more direct contact with people. From the look in their eyes and their body language, I feel quite positive. I feel I'm moving closer to people.' Rumours have been rife Mr Tien might drop the direct election bid in view of falling support in opinion polls from New Territories East. Fierce competition in the Hong Kong Island constituency has prompted Mr Tien to venture into the unfamiliar territory of NTE. With seven seats up for grabs, analysts say Mr Tien will be able to take one seat if he gets about 12 to 15 per cent of total votes. Mr Tien said their own polls showed he was ranked between third and fourth among all possible contenders. 'Worst comes to worst, I should be able to get one. There should be enough room for us in a big constituency like NTE. I don't know a lot about the constituency. But it will be a good thing if there is one more voice in the NTE. I hope voters will give us a chance. 'It's a misunderstanding that the business sector is against direct elections. We support gradual and orderly change. If people like me win in direct elections, the business community will feel less worried,' he said. 'We hope that our success ... will help pull society to the middle.' Mr Tien said the Liberals would seek to play the role of the middle-of-the-road force in the new Legco. 'Unlike the Democrats and the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, we will not oppose government policies for the sake of opposition,' he said. 'To give an example: people may ask for 10, but the government can only offer five. The Democrats and the DAB may just do what people want. We may end up having nothing at all if the government can only offer five. 'Of course, we will also support the demands of people if they are reasonable,' he said. Citing a poll by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, Mr Tien said their supporters expected them to play a bigger role in economic and employment issues. According to the poll conducted in late April, support for Mr Tien's Liberal Party ranked second, after the Democratic Party led by Yeung Sum. Pollsters concluded the public's image of Mr Tien and vice-chairman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee was largely positive - a good indicator that they should consider direct election. Mrs Chow, who represents the wholesale/retail constituency in Legco, is eyeing a seat in New Territories West. Speculation has been rife, however, that she may drop her direct election bid because the polls have shown unfavourable results. Their election plan has been further complicated by infighting within the relevant functional constituencies. The pair had hoped the seats they vacated after switching to geographical polls will be filled by candidates they choose from within or outside the party. There are growing indications that their preferred successors will face challenges from strong contestants within the General Chamber of Commerce and the wholesale/retail sector. Mr Tien maintained the whole purpose of forming a political party was to go to the masses to seek their support for their platform through elections. 'Otherwise, we should only have formed a business body.' He said they were convinced the creation of a bigger economic pie should take priority over the redistribution of economic benefits. 'We're glad some key figures of our party have consistently polled well over the past year. We take it as evidence that more people share our vision. 'We support the gradual and orderly progress of direct elections. If we don't take a step forward, we'll never get it.' The Liberal Party dropped the demand for dual universal suffrage for the chief executive and the legislature by 2007 and 2008 from its platform about two years ago. Following Beijing's decision to rule out dual direct polls in late April, Mr Tien said they hoped that the fourth term of the chief executive would be chosen by universal suffrage by 2012. 'The conditions are not ripe for direct polls in 2007,' he said. 'Giving a timetable may be a good idea. Like doing business, it is important to have a business plan so we can work towards the target.' Mr Tien maintained, however, that he did not support the abolition of all functional constituency seats by 2012. 'Many of us are worried about the total abolition of those seats in one go.' He was confident the business sector would agree to universal suffrage for the chief executive by 2012. 'If Hong Kong people can reach a broad consensus and tell Beijing it won't do any harm, Beijing will feel more relaxed about approving such changes.'