SCMP Sunday, May 21, 2000

INSIDE TRACK

Tung surveys slimmer chances

DANNY GITTINGS


If Tung Chee-hwa ever thought that standing for a second term would be easy, then recent events should certainly have shattered any illusions.

Last week's unflattering headlines - following a poll which found fewer than one in five people want him to stand again - were only the start. Even though Mr Tung must have already had some inkling of his unpopularity, this revelation of the depth of public opposition towards his goal of serving a second term is sure to have come as a nasty shock.

And there is almost certainly worse to come. It is only a matter of time before further such surveys start comparing Mr Tung with potential rivals in the 2002 contest. Given his abysmal ratings in the poll results released last week - which were part of a study by Baptist University's Hong Kong Transition Project - it would be no surprise to see these rank him behind even businessman Peter Woo Kwong-ching.

The former Wharf Group chairman, who stood against Mr Tung in 1996, has recently hinted he wants to do so again with a series of reactionary newspaper articles apparently aimed at proving his anti-democratic credentials to Beijing. His interest in standing will only be emboldened by this evidence of the extent of his rival's unpopularity.

But an even greater danger for Mr Tung is that Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang might finally be tempted into standing against him. Her ambition to become Chief Executive is no secret, as she was only narrowly dissuaded from joining the 1996 contest, when it became clear she stood no chance of success.

Mrs Chan is certainly not so naive as to believe that public opinion will be the determining factor in a contest which will be decided by an Election Committee of only 800 voters, and where the final result at least partly depends on which candidate is most trusted by Beijing. But nor is it something which she will be able to ignore if, as seems likely after last week's findings, future surveys show the public prefer her to Mr Tung by a margin of three - or even four - to one.

Nor are these the only problems Mr Tung will face as a result of his ambition to serve for a second term. Already his actions are drawing suspicions of ulterior motives.

When the Chief Executive's Office sought to increase its budget last year, legislators expressed concern that the extra funding would be used for activities - such as meetings with likely members of the 800-strong body - designed to bolster Mr Tung's chances.

More recently, his preference for having a different Election Committee choose six legislators in this September's polls, from the body of the same name that will decide the 2002 contest, has brought charges that he is doing this for his own electoral advantage. As 2002 draws nearer and Mr Tung formally declares his candidature, further such accusations are inevitable.

Hong Kong has never before experienced a situation in which its leader is running for re-election, albeit in a constituency of only a few hundred voters. And so, to a very large extent, the SAR will have to devise the rules for this new game according to how events unfold.

But the one point that does seem clear, even at this early stage, is that simply enjoying Beijing's backing is not enough to make this an easy contest for Mr Tung.