The Fan hits the proverbial

There is an expression in English which is rather vulgar, yet at the same time so useful, that it has also generated a bowdlerized version. It is used to describe a situation which has become chaotic and where the responsibility is scattering widely covering everyone within range.

In its polite form, it reads "the proverbial hits the fan". Recent developments in the run-up to the 2012 Chief Executive election have stood the expression on its head. The credit for this, if such there be, belongs mainly to Mrs Rita Fan.

Now I have said publically before that in my view Mrs Fan herself would make a strong candidate for the position. She has past experience on Exco and Legco. She was bold enough to run for the latter office in a geographic constituency and secured many tens of thousands of votes. She was a well respected President of Legco. Mrs Fan is not only a member of the National People’s Congress, she is also a member of its all-powerful Standing Committee. On the personal side, Mrs Fan successfully fought breast cancer, and also gave up a kidney to save the life of her daughter. She has a reassuring "senior auntie" demeanour. In political terms, she is an election agent's dream.

It is small wonder that for several months now she has topped local opinion polls asking people who they would support for Chief Executive. For a while she clearly toyed with the idea of running, saying that she would take a few months to think about it and in the meantime commenting freely on a wide range of political issues.

In the past two weeks, Mrs Fan has swerved sharply away from the idea of running herself, and instead has indicated that she would fully support Chief Secretary Henry Tang. Bearing in mind that Mrs Fan and Mr Tang were two of the co-founders of the Cooperative Resources Centre (a political group that later morphed into the Liberal Party) it is no surprise to find they are still politically close now. But what did raise some eyebrows were the caveats that Mrs Fan attached to her endorsement.

First, she made clear that she would review her decision not to run if Mr Tang failed to come forward. For most people, this would have been the first inkling that Mr Tang – long regarded as a front runner -- might opt not to stand. Inevitably there would be speculation about what skeletons there might be in his closet that an election campaign could bring to light, or alternatively that he might not have secured the "mandate from heaven" – support from the Central People’s Government.

The second comment she made was that he needed to improve his communication skills, something she felt the Government in general was poor at. Bearing in mind that Mr Tang has held a senior Ministerial position ever since the system was introduced in 2002, this might be thought to be quite a lacuna.

Mrs Fan’s qualified endorsement also needs to seen in the context of other developments in recent weeks. First, Exco Convenor C Y Leung has stated on the record that at an appropriate time he will resign his office and run for Chief Executive. No ambiguity there. Moreover, Mr Leung has clearly been making inroads into public consciousness and the most recent polls have shown him picking up support and running a close second to Mrs Fan. The same polls show Mr Tang well back in the field.

Second, some prominent figures normally seen as supporters of Mr Tang have been strongly pushing the idea that there should be only one pro-establishment candidate, there should not be a contested election between "acceptable" candidates. In other words the Election Committee should wait until the CPG has made up its mind and made clear who it backed, then vote accordingly.

I said recently in this column that such a process would be the political kiss of death for whoever became Chief Executive, because in order to function effectively he would also need to secure the support of Hong Kong people in an open and transparent manner. Otherwise he might "win" the election, but then spend five years struggling in office.

The message seems to have got through to Mr Tang’s team. The latest signals are that he will confirm on the record – possibly as early as this week -- that he too will shortly step down in order to run for Chief Executive. Given a probable runner from the democratic camp, that will give us at least three candidates who accept the need to publically prove themselves to the Hong Kong community in addition to winning backing from the north.

So things are heating up and just possibly heading in the right direction. Great Scott! We could even end up with an actual election. And for spreading the merits of this approach, we should give a good measure of the credit to Mrs Fan.