Premier Wen Jiabao yesterday assured Hongkongers that the March 25 chief executive election will produce a leader who enjoys the support of the 'vast majority' of the city. Wen's remarks, at the final news conference of his tenure following the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress session in Beijing, came amid increasing speculation over which of the two front runners, Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying, will win Beijing's approval ahead of the Election Committee's vote on March 25. Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya said last July that the city's next leader, who will take over from Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in July, will require a 'rather high degree of acceptance' by the public. 'I believe that as long as the principles of openness, justice and fairness are observed and the relevant legal procedures are complied with, the Hong Kong people will elect a chief executive who enjoys the support of the vast majority of the people in Hong Kong,' Wen said. Despite the city's per capita GDP reaching a record high of US$34,200 last year, Wen added, Hong Kong still faced challenges in view of economic uncertainty and a widening income gap. 'Hong Kong now faces both difficulties and opportunities,' he said. 'The financial crisis in the world and the European debt crisis have exerted an adverse impact on Hong Kong and pressure is still there. 'Hong Kong is under the dual pressures of slowing economic growth and inflation. Under such circumstances, Hong Kong must continue to work hard to develop the economy, improve people's lives, advance democracy and maintain social harmony.' Wen also cited a saying, attributed to late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, that 'there should be confidence that the Hong Kong people can run Hong Kong well'. Critics were divided over whether Wen's comments indicated Beijing's preferred candidate, with the political pundit James Sung Lap-kung saying they had covered only matters of principle and were impartial. 'His stress on openness, justice and fairness implies that he doesn't want to see smear campaigns,' Sung said, adding that he believed the social and economic issues touched on were the areas that Beijing wanted the next leader to address. Commentator Allen Lee Peng-fei said he believed Wen's mention of a leader backed by 'the vast majority' suggested Beijing preferred Leung, who has been leading in opinion polls by 20 or more percentage points for several weeks. His view was echoed by Leung's supporters, including Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate Lew Mon-hung. Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Wen's remarks suggested the chances of a failed election were diminishing. 'He seems to stress that the problem [of recent scandals] can be solved as long as the election is held according to procedures and in a fair and just manner,' Choy said. Local NPC deputy Maria Tam Wai-chu said she believed Wen's remarks were objective and had no implications for either candidate. In a statement, Tang said he agreed with Wen that the city would elect a leader backed by the vast majority and expressed confidence in his abilities to handle the challenges spelled out by Wen. Leung made no comment. Pan-democratic candidate Albert Ho Chun-yan, who has no chance of winning, said a widely supported chief executive could be elected only if there was universal suffrage.