Lack of popular mandate would make it hard to govern Hong Kong, Carrie Lam admits

Former chief secretary also clarifies remarks about a constitutional crisis if Beijing did not accept election winner and says she was not attacking rivals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 9:28am

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has admitted there would be questions over her governance if she was picked as chief executive by the 1,194-member Election Committee in March but trailed her rivals in terms of popularity.

The remarks by Lam, who is lagging behind her main rival John Tsang Chun-wah in opinion polls but is widely regarded as the front runner, came amid controversy surrounding a closed-door gathering on Friday at which she warned Hong Kong could face a constitutional crisis if Beijing deemed the winner of the contest unacceptable and refused to appoint him or her.

Critics questioned whether Lam was suggesting electors should not support Tsang. Another candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, accused Lam of using a “despicable tactic” to attack opponents.

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But the former chief secretary clarified her remarks on Sunday and said she was not targeting anyone but just stressing a general principle.

Referring to a possible scenario in which she beats a more popular rival in the election, Lam said: “I will face huge difficulties in governance if I am chosen by the Election Committee as chief executive but lose to another candidate in terms of popularity.

“There is no guarantee for a chief executive who enjoys high popularity to govern effectively ... But the situation would be worse if the winner in the chief executive election lacks a strong popular mandate. You cannot press ahead on major policy initiatives without a strong mandate.”

Tsang had a 4.4 percentage point lead over Lam in a Chinese University poll of 1,024 people between January 4 and 10.

Lam also admitted that if Tsang could muster the required 150 nominations in the first stage of the race, she could lose when members of the Election Committee made their final choices by secret ballot.

“Popularity counts in the chief executive election although it is decided by 1,194 Election Committee members. The absence of a ‘one man, one vote’ election means you need to make amends by scoring high popularity in opinion polls.”

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She said she was very sorry for causing a misunderstanding when she talked earlier about the scenario of a constitutional crisis.

“I was only making a factual statement ... that under the Basic Law, the chief executive is both accountable to the central government and Hong Kong, and he or she is to be elected and appointed by Beijing.”

During a closed-door gathering with senior media executives on Friday, Lam reportedly said she had “decided to run for the election to prevent” such a constitutional crisis. Her campaign office issued a statement on Saturday claiming the reports were inaccurate and clarified that Lam “merely raised concerns that, on the off-chance [Beijing] chooses not to appoint the candidate elected ... a constitutional crisis could arise”.

Lam further elaborated on Sunday, saying: “I was absolutely not commenting on any candidate.”

She also appealed for “tolerance”, saying she had only left the government a week ago after more than three decades, including 20 months in recent years handling ill-fated reform to introduce universal suffrage in the March contest.

“You can say that [I am] still in political reform mode, and when someone mentions the election, I explain the facts instinctively.”

Speculation has been rife that officials in Beijing did not want Tsang to run for chief executive. The central government took more than a month to approve his resignation, compared with only four days for Lam.

Tsang and New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, another contender, declined to comment on Lam’s remarks. Ip would only say her bid would not be affected by Lam’s comments.

Former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing believed it was unlikely that Beijing would refuse to appoint the winner of the election on March 26.

“I am confident that in assessing the candidates, the standards of the vast majority of election committee members would be in line with the central government,” he said.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said he was not convinced by Lam’s clarification.