- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

HONG KONG — About 800 delegates cast ballots early today for Hong Kong’s next chief executive in a vote that is widely expected to return incumbent Donald Tsang to power for a 5-year term.

No one here even pretends that the election today is fully democratic. The delegates from Hong Kong’s business and professional groups, will choose between Mr. Tsang and Alan Leong, who represents the pro-democracy camp.

In Hong Kong, the goal of full democracy — often defined as a popularly elected chief executive — remains elusive nearly a decade after the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in July 1997.

But the fact that someone challenged an acting chief executive and forced him to publicly defend his policies and to make promises he is certain to be held accountable for has changed Hong Kong’s politics forever, politicians and analysts said.

“We’ll lose in order to win,” Mr. Leong said in an interview. “Even though I don’t have the votes to win this time, I’m paving the way to winning next time. This campaign set a minimum standard for future candidates. Politics is now a household subject.”

Unlike in past elections for chief executive, this one also lets delegates cast their ballots in secret. Results are expected to be announced within hours after voting concludes at noon.

Hong Kong under Chinese rule indeed never has been more politicized. More than a third of its 7 million residents watched two unprecedented television debates between Mr. Tsang and Mr. Leong.

According to opinion polls, more than 60 percent want the right to elect their leaders directly, with everyone’s vote counting.

“As a challenger, Alan [Leong] was good,” said Ma Lik, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and a supporter of Mr. Tsang. “Having more than one candidate is a positive development.”

Allen Lee, an Election Committee member and another supporter of Mr. Tsang, said Mr. Leong “has changed the political dynamic and sent a clear message to Beijing that the people in Hong Kong want to see a contest.”

Christine Loh, executive director of the nongovernmental group Civic Exchange, said the election also has “cultural importance.”

“It is the first time a Chinese leader has to explain and defend his positions,” she said, noting that Chris Patten, the last British governor, liked meeting with people and answering their questions, but he was appointed by London.

Mr. Tsang’s supporters point out his decades of experience as a civil servant and add that, for the most part, things in Hong Kong run smoothly and effectively. The city regularly tops various rankings of the world’s freest economies.

But his critics say that, while he is a good executor of policy because he had to do it for years under the British, he lacks vision and a big-picture thinking ability. They also accuse him of being too lenient on big business.

“What we need is true leadership,” said Gladys Li, another Election Committee member and one of 132 who nominated Mr. Leong. “The government lacks the political will to do anything on many vital issues.”

Several politicians and analysts identified key issues as the widening gap between rich and poor, the quality of education and the badly polluted air.

“If Donald can bring democracy to Hong Kong and clean up the air, he’ll be remembered as a great chief executive,” said David Dodwell, chief executive of Strategic Access, a public policy research firm.

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