- An election committee of 1,200 Hong Kong people will choose new Chief Executive
- Hong Kong residents do not vote but the winning candidate is supposed to be "acceptable" to them
- The two main candidates are 59-year-old Henry Tang and 58-year-old C Y Leung
- But both candidates have been mired in controversy, making the race increasingly hostile
Elections to select Hong Kong's top official, known as the Chief Executive, are supposed to be predictable.
An election committee of 1,200 Hong Kong people, drawn largely from pro-business, pro-establishment circles, cast their ballots and China's preferred candidate wins with a healthy majority.
The city-state returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, though as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), which means it retains a high level of autonomy, only ceding control of foreign relations and defense matters to Beijing. The city has developed into one of the world's great financial centers.
Hong Kong's seven million residents do not get to vote but the winning candidate is supposed to be "acceptable" to them. The entire process is designed to avoid unpleasant surprises.
The two main candidates -- 59-year-old Henry Tang, son of a well connected tycoon, and 58-year-old C Y Leung, of more humble origins, but impeccable pro-Beijing credentials -- were supposed to conduct gentlemanly campaigns, culminating in Tang's eventual victory as the favorite of China's leaders and Hong Kong's tycoons.
But the mud started flying.
Tang's private life became a public nightmare. First he was forced to own up to a string of marital infidelities. Then a media circus descended on one of his homes, using cherry pickers and cranes to film over the high walls of the luxury property looking for evidence of illegal construction work. Tang's clumsy response, first denying, then blaming his wife for the work drew widespread condemnation. Never a popular figure, Tang's opinion poll ratings tumbled and some of his backers began to question his electability.
Meanwhile C Y Leung ran into his own troubles. He is currently under investigation for a conflict of interest case involving a construction project when he was in government office. There are also allegations of "black money" -- that his campaign had been in contact with organized crime figures. He also is reputed to be a closet communist, and to hold hardline views on public order and press freedom.
Even outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang has found himself embroiled in controversy amid allegations he had breached anti-bribery regulations by traveling on luxury yachts and private jets owned by wealthy friends.
But despite his problems, Leung continues to show a consistent lead over Tang in public opinion polls.
Beijing is apparently now pressuring committee members to switch to Leung. But it remains to be seen whether enough members of the election committee will listen. One of Asia's richest men, Li Ka-shing, has said that he will continue to support Tang. The pro-business Liberal Party, controlling 28 votes, says it cannot vote for Leung, while leaving it to individuals members whether they vote for Tang or not.
Beijing's hand has tipped the balance in favor of Leung, but he is not yet a shoe-in.
The fact of the matter is that neither candidate is very popular and a number of members of the election committee are threatening to cast blank ballots. If no candidate can get more than 50% of the votes the election will be annulled. It would need to be re-run in May, no doubt with some new faces.
While this might be an acceptable outcome to many in Hong Kong, it would be a huge loss of face for Beijing, showing that it was unable to control the situation.
This Sunday there will be something unprecedented at a chief executive election in Hong Kong -- suspense.