Opportunity mixed with danger
Amid an air of doom and gloom, the success of the pan-democratic forces in gaining entry to contest the chief executive election could already, to borrow the words of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, be hailed as a 'job done'.
Democrats could have declared that they had accomplished their mission to try to 'subvert the small-circle election'. Even their political rival Tsang Yok-sing, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has observed that the poll has become 'mock universal suffrage'.
Thus, for the first time since the initial chief executive election in 1996, a member of the pro-democratic force - Alan Leong Kah-kit - has succeeded in becoming a candidate. In the lead-up to the March 25 voting day, he will be able to grill Mr Tsang, the incumbent, over his visions, policies and ruling plan and team.
More than two decades after Hong Kong embarked on its trouble-strewn journey towards democracy, this election has emerged as a catalyst for change that may have a far-reaching impact on the city's political development.
A traditional Chinese saying has it that opportunity and danger come hand in hand. True, Mr Leong and his allies have nothing to lose as far as the election is concerned; it is a lost battle.
But it is equally true that the stakes are higher for both candidates after they vowed to go to the masses to seek support.
Mr Tsang is hoping to demonstrate he has strong backing from the central government, the Election Committee and the people - in that order. If he leads Mr Leong by a clear margin in opinion polls, he could silence those who are against the undemocratic Election Committee system.
The worst fears of some democrats that their participation would legitimise the 'small-circle election' may also become a reality.
Given the fact that the public opinion battle has become critically important, the campaign will become even more politicised. A case in point is the propaganda, bordering on personal attacks, against Mr Leong.
Mr Leong's remarks that it would be the first time an elected legislator has fought against a candidate who has the blessing of Beijing have been lambasted by the pro-Beijing media as an affront to the central authorities.
The hostile interpretation of Mr Leong's mere statement of fact says a lot about the political environment at a hypersensitive juncture.
It will be a testing time for the democrats; can they demonstrate their sense of sensitivity, maturity and purpose when setting out a full blueprint about why they are contesting the election, and what they stand for?
Being the incumbent, with 40 years of experience in public administration - including 19 months as chief executive - Mr Tsang is clearly in a much stronger position to offer a more convincing policy blueprint for his campaign.
With the 160,000-strong government machine as his back-up, he is able to come up with a list of things which he can achieve in his action plan, such as a tax cut.
Realistically, it will be a tall order for Mr Leong, who was elected to the Legislative Council in the Kowloon East geographical constituency in 2004, to match Mr Tsang when it comes to a debate on the nitty-gritty of policies.
Unlike in developed democracies, the opposition force that Mr Leong represents has largely been a watchdog, acting as a check and balance on the administration.
It is therefore not surprising that Mr Leong has focused on the demand for universal suffrage in 2012 in his campaign after he secured the minimum number of nominations required for candidacy.
Flying the flag of democracy is no doubt important for Mr Leong to appeal to the populace, as most people want universal suffrage soon.
But it will be far more important for the pro-democracy camp to seize the historical opportunity to demonstrate to the people, particularly the democrat-bashers, and to the central authorities, that they could provide a credible alternative government.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large