The race for the next chief executive election, due in early 2007, began in earnest Thursday with Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho openly voicing his support for Chief Secretary for Administration, Donald Tsang.
Ho gave Tsang a score of 90 out of 100 marks based on his record of performance in the civil service over the past seven years.
"Of course, he [Tsang] should run for two terms as chief executive," Ho said.
The tycoon, who is also chairman of the powerful Real Estate Developers Association, gave his assessment while attending a spring reception hosted by the Hong Kong Girl Guides Association of which he is a vice-president.
Ho is the first prominent business figure to have openly declared support for a possible candidate to become the territory's third-term chief executive.
The magnate admitted he will be disappointed if Tsang were to retire when his term as Chief Secretary for Administration expires in June 2007.
"If that's the case, it would be a big waste. I don't think a person with talent should retire so early," Ho said.
Tsang had told a group of media representatives on February 9 the first day of the Lunar New Year he planned to retire when his present term ends in 2007.
When asked whether he intended to throw his hat into the ring for chief executive, Tsang replied: "Please stop kidding with me."
According to various public opinion polls conducted by local universities in the past few years, Tsang has consistently been rated by the general public as the most popular official in the SAR government.
He regularly scores more than 60 marks out of 100.
With Tsang being the most experienced civil servant among other possible contenders for the top job, Ho's support for him is expected to further boost his chances in the 2007 election.
However, political experts say the picture is still unclear.
Lingnan University political science professor Li Pang-kwong said it would be too early to conclude that Tsang is already the favorite candidate in the minds of Beijing leaders.
But he said Ho's backing did reflect the fact that some business figures preferred a candidate with a more neutral civil service background, rather than someone close to property tycoons and large enterprises.
Li believed that more prominent local figures will declare their support for specific candidates in the coming months. "The curtain is already up. Prominent political and business figures are expected to step up behind-the- scenes efforts battle to raise their candidates' popularity," Li added.
Ho recently hit out at the government's plans to award the controversial HK$40-billion West Kowloon cultural district project, of which Tsang is in charge, to a single developer.
The tycoon instead urged the government to carve up the project's 40-hectare site into several areas and sell it at a public auction.
This came after most members of the Real Estate Developers Association had endorsed a resolution opposing the government's single-developer approach in the project.
Ho also said most members also agreed with his own development proposal, which was forecast to generate more than HK$210 billion in government revenue.