High scandal in the fight for Hong Kong

One has been linked to Triad gangs, the other has been engulfed by corruption. The candidates hoping to take control of the former British colony are making for an election like no other. By Luke Hunt in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong's chosen few go to the polls on Sunday in a bid to push the former British colony further down the path of democratic reform. But a series of scandals involving both Beijing-approved candidates and the outgoing chief executive have angered and alienated the public.

Equally unimpressed is Beijing, where Chinese leaders view any democratic process with suspicion and trepidation. They could only demur as their first pick Henry Tang, and to a lesser extent his main opponent Leung Chun-ying, stumbled from one gaffe after another. "About one in four [Hong Kong voters] has been so put off by the allegations and scandals that they want this election to return no result," said Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. Such thoughts are now a realistic prospect.

Mr Tang, 59 and an heir to a textile fortune, toiled for years as the No 2 to Donald Tsang, who will step down as chief executive in June, amid controversies over his lavish lifestyle. A self-assured civil servant, he had carved out an image as a strong disciplinarian, not unlike a public school headmaster. As Beijing's anointed heir, his election by the 1,200 members eligible to vote in this weekend's elections seemed assured.

That was until revelations of marital infidelities, speculation of a child out of wedlock and a scandal over an enormous illegal basement constructed under the family home – which he attempted to pass off as a hole in the ground to store things in. It turned out to be a palatial entertainment area complete with wine cellar and a Japanese-styled sauna.

"Basement-Gate"– as the affair was christened – hardly endeared him to ordinary Hong Kong citizens who struggle with outrageous rents in what is the world's most densely populated city. Mr Tang's situation was made worse by a government crackdown on the illegal cubicles that are home to many of the city's poorest citizens.

The heir apparent blamed his wife for the basement, which had apparently been built during a bad patch in their marriage. She made a tearful apology that even his most ardent fans had trouble believing. His popularity rankings soon plummeted to 16 per cent amid calls that he withdraw from the race.

The fallout propelled Leung Chun-ying, a 57-year-old former government adviser, ahead of Mr Tang in the opinion polls as the preferred leader, sparking a battle between two pro-establishment candidates. But in another sour twist, Mr Leung has also faced allegation of conflict of interest involving property deals. A former Convener of the Executive Council, he is alleged to have favoured the design of an arts hub in which his company had an interest.

The controversy came amid accusations of links to "black and gold politics", a Chinese euphemism for the attainment of wealth through "dark and secretive means". "For CY Leung one of the charges is that he is an underground member of the Communist Party of China who may also have links with Triad organised criminal gangs," said Gavin Greenwood, a Hong Kong-based security analyst with Allan & Associates, referring to Chinese organised crime gangs.

But his calm in fending off the accusations, coupled with policies of extra spending on housing, social welfare and the poor, has won Mr Leung significant support, particularly among Hong Kong's youth. A third candidate, Albert Ho, Chairman of the Democratic Party, is not considered to have much of a chance with the pro-Beijing election committee.

Underlying the swirl of controversy, there is an electoral system that favours the wealthy. Hong Kong's unique vote was introduced as a compromise that allowed for limited autonomy by the British shortly before handing power to the Chinese in 1997. Beijing in return promised to honour freedoms that mainlanders can only dream of.

Currently, just 1,200 people who represent 28 designated functional constituencies, will vote in this election. The constituencies represent 225,000 people drawn from special interest groups that range from education to finance. And while the vast majority of the territory's seven million people will have no direct say in this poll, they do have a habit of making their leaders stand to attention through protests and a free press. Beijing, for its part, has indicated that full democratic elections for the chief executive's post could be held by 2017.

"In some ways, Hong Kong is more democratic than some supposed democracies with flawed elections – for example, the US Supreme Court 'election' of George Bush in 2000. The loss of press and other freedoms in the US would not be tolerated here," Mr DeGolyer said.

He said the sting in Sunday's poll could be a decision by members of the electoral committee to bow to popular opinion and cast blank ballots. If neither candidate gains a clear majority fresh elections with a new field of candidates must be held in May. "Odds are high that there will be no candidate with a majority of votes in the first round – unless Beijing steps in decisively before Sunday," he added. That would mean an edict on which way to vote from the mainland.

Chinese leaders have already indicated that Mr Leung, 57, would be acceptable after Premier Wen Jiabao said he was confident that Mr Tsang would be replaced by a leader who has the support of the "vast majority" of the people. Some see this as a declaration of sorts by the reform movement on the mainland, where positioning is already underway for a leadership transition within the Communist Party.

In Hong Kong, that message was delivered as the territory's leading businessman, Li Ka-shing, publicly backed Mr Tang for the top post, saying "his experience and work in the administration" would be good for the territory. Some of Mr Li's peers have suggested that a Leung victory could prove damaging to Hong Kong's all important property market and its freewheeling economy built on rule of law, an ease in doing business and low taxes. Mr Li, however, has made a point of saying he would not be pulling investments out of the territory if Mr Leung wins on Sunday.

While Mr Tang undoubtedly welcomed the billionaire's support, he must have noticed that Beijing has not offered any similar backing for his candidacy. Mr Greenwood said the campaign has proved both an embarrassment and an unwelcome distraction for a Beijing beset with its own power struggle.

"The post-election mood is likely to be one touched by a degree of cynicism and rejection of authority unseen in Hong Kong even during the colonial era," Mr Greenwood said.

The textile heir: Henry Tang

Educated in the US, and an heir to a textile fortune, Mr Tang joined the government in 2002 and was the chief secretary for administration in Hong Kong until his resignation in September last year. He then announced his candidacy for the Chief Executive's post two months later. Believed to have close ties to Beijing, his father, Tang Hsiang Chien, was once a member of an advisory body to China's National People's Congress.

The self-made man: Leung Chun-Ying

Unlike Mr Tang, who hails from Hong Kong's elite, Mr Leung has more humble roots. A policeman's son, he is a self-made businessman who found his feet in the real estate business before making the transition to politics. Until last year, he was the convener of Hong Kong's Executive Council, the main policy-making body in the former British colony. More populist than Mr Tang, he has been accused of being a Communist Party member.