And they're off! With the formal announcement of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's candidacy, this year's race for chief executive promises to be the most exciting of the past 10 years. That, of course, is not difficult, since it will also be the first contested election for chief executive in Hong Kong's decade-long history as a special administrative region. This race reflects a sea change on the part of the democratic camp: it boycotted earlier contests, terming them 'small-circle' elections that lacked legitimacy. This time around, however, the democrats made a genuine effort to contest the votes for Election Committee members. They won more than 100 seats on the 800-member committee and, with it, the power to nominate Alan Leong Kah-kit as their candidate. It also reflects a change on the part of Beijing. If central government leaders had earlier publicly endorsed Mr Tsang for a second term - as they did his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa - then it is likely that there wouldn't have been enough Election Committee members willing to openly defy Beijing's wishes. But Beijing evidently recognises the widespread desire in Hong Kong for a contested election, and so wisely refrained from playing the bully - at least in public. Still, everyone can see that Hong Kong is only going through the motions of holding an election, since the outcome is already known. This is because the incumbent is seen as Beijing's candidate, and the vast majority of Election Committee members will not vote for anyone who does not have the central government's blessing. But even though the system is, in that sense, rigged, the reality is that the winning candidate must also have the support of the majority of the population. At present, Mr Tsang enjoys the support of about 60 per cent of the public, according to opinion polls. That is a relatively high rate compared to, say, the 41 per cent support that Americans accord their president, George W. Bush. The Election Committee cannot confer popular legitimacy on the winner. But the fact that he is also by far the more popular candidate, as reflected in opinion surveys, makes a huge difference. In fact, it is the public that confers legitimacy on the winning candidate through its support. Mr Tsang knows this, which is why he has said that his election strategy is to achieve a popularity rating of above 60 per cent - while aiming for just over 50 per cent of the Election Committee's vote. This means he attaches more importance to his popular standing than to the number of votes he wins in the committee. So, despite the lack of genuine democracy in substance, the spirit of democracy must be present or else the system would be seen as bankrupt. The day that a chief executive hand-picked by Beijing loses public support is the day that central government leaders must look for a new candidate. That is what happened with the first chief executive, Mr Tung. After the massive protest rally on July 1, 2003, Beijing realised that he had lost the support of the people: it cast around for a successor, who turned out to be Mr Tsang. We should not forget that, in 1996, when Mr Tung was first chosen by the Selection Committee, he was by far the most popular of the four candidates. In theory, Beijing can force an unpopular candidate down Hong Kong's throat. But that would lead to a revolution and make the city ungovernable. And so, despite Beijing's insistence that it, and it alone, has the right to appoint the chief executive, that legal right is actually attenuated by the popular will of the people. From a practical standpoint, the central government simply cannot pick a chief executive who is unacceptable to Hongkongers. Sooner rather than later, Beijing should realise that, in the end, it is the public that decides who the chief executive will be. So it might as well formalise the arrangement and allow the voters to choose the chief executive through universal suffrage. Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.