Hong Kong elects a new chief executive: what you need to know

On March 26, Hong Kong will elect its next leader, known as the chief executive, for the first time since widespread protests over democratisation

Whats happening?

Hong Kong will elect the next head of the city, known as the chief executive, for a five-year term on 26 March. This is the first election for the city’s top job since dissatisfaction with the pace of democratisation sparked widespread street protests in 2014.

The chief executive wields significant power in the former British colony, but has little accountability to ordinary citizens since the post is elected by a committee of only 1,200, far less than the city’s 3.8 million registered voters.

The current highly divisive incumbent Leung Chun-ying is not seeking reelection so the field is wide open.

Who votes?

Only 1,200 voters are eligible to cast ballots in the election, including all 70 members of the city’s legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors.

In some ways the system works similar to the electoral college in the US, where representatives are first elected to a committee by various sections of society, and those delegates vote in the chief executive contest.

The electoral system has been criticised for both being undemocratic and for the uneven nature in which votes are allocated.

The agricultural and fisheries sector has 60 votes despite representing only 0.1% of Hong Kong’s economy, while the finance and insurance sectors combined have only 47 votes.

Even foreign companies can vote for representatives in various sectors, with foreign airlines voting in the tourism sector and the Australian and French chambers of commerce represented by the industrial sector. Ordinary Hong Kong residents have no say in the chief executive election.

The 1,200 members of the election committee will gather in one of the city’s two convention centres and cast secret ballots. If none of the three captures more than 600 votes in the first round, the two leading candidates will face off in a second round, with the results announced shortly after.

Who are the candidates?

There are three candidates, but the contest is largely between Beijing’s pick of the former deputy head of government and the more popular former financial secretary.

Carrie Lam served as the number two official under Leung, the current chief executive, until she resigned in a bid to replace him. She is the frontrunner and has already amassed hundreds of endorsements from the small pool of eligible voters. Lam has promised to focus on the economy and revamp government agencies, but has sidestepped Hong Kong’s two most contentious issues: national security legislation and political reform.

John Tsang served as financial secretary for nearly a decade, before he resigned in order to run for the top job. He is by far the most popular candidate according to various polls of Hong Kong residents.

Tsang’s platform focuses on a tax overhaul, education and boosting government accountability in a bid to appeal to moderate factions. He also promised to restart discussions on political reform and enact highly controversial national security legislation, which was previously shelved after large street protests.

Woo Kwok-hing, a former judge, is the most progressive candidate running for the chief executive, but has consistently polled last among the three. He has vowed to put political reform at the top of his agenda and expand who is eligible to vote for representatives in the powerful election committee.

The latest polling from the University of Hong Kong shows John Tsang is by far the favourite among ordinary people, boasting a 17 point lead ahead of Carrie Lam. Woo is trailing far behind, with only 9% of respondents choosing the former judge.

How much influence does Beijing have?

Beijing wields immense power in Hong Kong, nearly all of it exercised behind the scenes. The Chinese government has made it clear it prefers Lam to win. Officials have engaged in significant lobbying on her behalf behind the scenes, despite the fact this appears to violate Hong Kong’s mini constitution known as the Basic Law.

Many of the business sectors rely on support from Beijing or at least need to maintain cordial relations, and have frequent contact with the Chinese government.

One potential candidate, former head of the legislature Jasper Tsang, said he chose not to run after the authorities in Beijing made it clear they would not support him and even went as far as to say they would not let him win.

What happens after the election?

Lam is widely considered to come out the winner despite being unpopular. Most pro-democracy politicians and activists see her as simply as a continuation of Leung, who’s highly divisive tenure saw mass street protests on multiple occasions.

Some even think Lam could be worse for the city’s democratic development and ignore the concerns of Hong Kong people in favour of instructions from Beijing. But many are still holding out hope Chinese leaders will change their mind, unable to ignore Tsang’s overwhelming popularity.


Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

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