Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lopsided Hong Kong Election Still Draws Interest

March 24, 2007

HONG KONG, Sunday, March 25 — As 796 electors prepared to cast their votes on Sunday in Hong Kong’s first contested election for chief executive, the Beijing-backed incumbent appeared almost certain to win re-election by a wide margin.

But the race has drawn more attention than expected here and across the border in mainland China.

For the first time, a democracy advocate, Alan Leong, has been able to get on the ballot by obtaining nominations from more than 100 of the 796 electors, who are mainly business people and politicians with links to mainland China. Hong Kong has also held its first two debates pitting a leader of the territory against an opponent actively promoting democracy.

The campaign has grown sufficiently contentious that mainland authorities have temporarily blocked signals from CNN even when Beijing’s favored candidate, Donald Tsang, has articulated his position on eventual democracy here.

People in the neighboring Guangdong province can receive television signals from Hong Kong, and have been expressing envy to Hong Kong television crews over this territory’s limited liberties.

“They say, why don’t we have the same thing for the election of our governors?” Mr. Tsang said in an interview Friday, adding that he did not have a position on whether this was good or bad.

Mr. Tsang said in the interview, with five foreign correspondents, that he wanted to introduce in the next five years a democracy plan that would satisfy the 60 percent of Hong Kong’s people who consistently tell pollsters that they want a system of one person, one vote.

But he declined to provide any details. He tried and failed in 2005 to fashion a consensus that would satisfy democracy advocates without upsetting Beijing leaders, who worry about losing control here, and without antagonizing local business leaders, some of whom warn that greater democracy could lead to demands for the introduction of a minimum wage and greater welfare spending.

Michael DeGolyer, the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a group of academics studying the evolution of democratic liberties in Hong Kong, said that Mr. Tsang’s comments over the past five months of the campaign showed a discernible shift toward greater enthusiasm for addressing the question of greater democracy here.

Mr. Tsang is considered virtually certain to win because he has Beijing’s backing and was nominated by 641 of the 796 electors. Only 132 electors chose Mr. Leong.

With unemployment falling and the economy booming, polls by Hong Kong University and other groups suggest that if the general public could vote, they would overwhelmingly choose Mr. Tsang. He has four decades of experience in public service while Mr. Leong is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association who emerged as the pro-democracy candidate after better-known politicians decided that it was hopeless to run against Mr. Tsang.

Roughly 200,000 professionals among Hong Kong’s 7 million people were eligible to vote for electors late last year, choosing slightly over half of the electors. The rest of the electors hold their position because of the offices they hold, such as being a member of the legislature here or of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

Sunday’s elections also represent the first time that a secret ballot has been used to choose the next leader of Hong Kong. This has prompted speculation that some electors, secretly unhappy with Mr. Tsang but obliged to support him publicly to satisfy Beijing, might cast blank ballots while in the privacy of voting booths.

Stanley Ho, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Tsang who controls many of the casinos in nearby Macao, caused controversy two weeks ago by saying there was a way to find out who cast which vote. Mr. Ho later said that he had only meant to cite a local expression that every secret eventually becomes known.

Election officials have been issuing almost daily assurances ever since that ballots will be truly secret, with no photography allowed in the voting area and no serial numbers or other identifying marks on the ballots.

“It will leave some lurking doubt, so unless people have strong views, they will vote for Donald Tsang,” said Margaret Ng, a pro-democracy lawmaker who is an elector and supports Mr. Leong.

Longtime democracy advocates in Hong Kong remain divided over the wisdom of participating in elections with rules that make it certain they will lose. The two most prominent figures in the pro-democracy movement here — Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, and Anson Chan, a former second-ranking official in the Hong Kong government — each declined to run this spring.

Under the British, who ruled Hong Kong until its return to Chinese rule in 1997, colonial governors were appointed by London with practically no regard for sentiment here. The initial rules drafted by Beijing officials for choosing chief executives were highly restrictive — there were only 400 electors in the first election in late 1996, and each elector’s name and vote were posted on a board, a move that made it impossible to provide secret support for democracy advocates.

With those rules, the democracy movement boycotted chief executive elections in 1996 and 2002, both of which were won by Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping magnate. When Mr. Tung stepped down in 2005 and elections were held for the two years remaining in his second five-year term, the chairman of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, tried to run but failed to secure the 100 nominations from electors necessary to obtain a place on the ballot.

The Democratic Party and the similar Civic Party have enthusiastically backed Mr. Leong’s candidacy this year, but other pro-democracy groups continue to boycott the political process, most notably the influential Catholic diocese of Hong Kong, which has the right to name seven electors.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the leader of the church, said in an interview that while the Vatican would allow church officials to serve as electors, he and other clergy had chosen not to do so because the elections were not a democratic process.

Instead, the diocese has allowed parishioners to apply to fill the seven spots as electors, and has given no instruction to these parishioners on how to vote, Cardinal Zen said.

In a separate development, Cardinal Zen said that the Vatican had just turned down his offer of his resignation as bishop of Hong Kong. It is standard practice in the Catholic Church for bishops to offer their resignation when they turn 75, as Cardinal Zen did in January; he would have remained a cardinal even if he stepped down as bishop, and had said that he would like to be relieved of his duties here so that he could focus more on relations with China.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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