Chief executive candidates must take every chance to engage the public

While televised debates won’t have a major impact on the result, they are a chance for the contenders to reach out and earn the people’s trust

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 4:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 4:24am

The televised debate involving the three chief executive candidates on Tuesday evening was never expected to have a major impact on the outcome of the election. What matters, ultimately, are Beijing’s preference and the votes of the 1,194-member Election Committee. Nonetheless, it was probably the only occasion where the candidates could directly communicate with the public. That explains why social media has been awash with talk about their performances.

Who won the big Hong Kong chief executive debate?

Both John Tsang Chun-wah and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor impressed in certain ways. The former finance chief was noticeably more combative,while Lam, having served as the government No 2, remained solid and well-versed in policy details. Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing also scored a few points by hitting out at the two for passing the buck over housing supply.

For those who looked forward to juicy revelations or mud-slinging like that in the previous election, the two-hour debate might have appeared uneventful. But it did produce some sparkle, and let people hear for themselves how the trio differ on the questions of political reform and economic development as well as on housing and land supply. This is what is expected of an open and civilised debate.

While Tsang hopes to keep his comfortable lead in the popularity ratings, Lam is obviously keen to make use of the opportunity to catch up. Whether the debate has made a difference remains to be seen. As there did not seem to be a clear winner, it would not be surprising if there were no immediate change in their levels of support. In any case, public support is only one of the criteria for the chief executive. As mainland officials have repeatedly emphasised, the leader should also be patriotic, competent and trusted by Beijing.

Why Beijing should rethink its backing for Carrie Lam

That said, it is in the interests of Beijing and Hong Kong to return someone supported and trusted by the people. That means the candidates should continue to reach out to the community. The focus of attention will soon shift to the debate organised by the Election Committee on Sunday. As it will be the last major forum before the ballot on March 26, the candidates should seize the occasion to better engage voters and the community at large.