Tonight the public will get a final chance to interact directly with the chief executive candidates. Barred from attending the debate March 1 held for Election Committee members only, the public got the final 15 minutes devoted to their 3,400 faxed and e-mailed questions.
Those thousands of questions flooded in spontaneously. No huge media campaign, no government advertisements pleading for weeks with the public to participate. No, a few hours to act, and thousands of questions.
So much for the canard the public does not care about politics or policies or government. They obviously do.
Donald Tsang and his handlers bickered over debate rules so long it was possible that meager quarter-hour might be all the interaction the public would get with the candidates in a face-to-face debate.
That would have left the first and so far only contested chief executive election over the first 15 years of the SAR's existence a grand total of 15 minutes of public questions, posed second-hand by a moderator.
As it is, 15 years from 1997 until the next election in 2012 will pass with just one single debate - the one tonight - with questions directly posed by the public.
Last week Tsang refused to debate the public's questions with his opponent in the People's Debate held at Baptist University.
That debate allotted the whole 90 minutes to questions from the public and representatives of non- governmental organizations.
That was apparently too much public for Tsang, so Alan Leong debated an empty chair.
So much for a government Tsang pledged will heed public opinion. A huge majority wants a competitive election and debates, even if they also want Tsang re-elected. They want Tsang to face them, answer them, lead them; not hide behind iron gates and unaccountable bureaucrats.
Leong's People's Debate was a real give and take with a very engaged public absolutely determined to be heard. The questions came hard and fast, with pointed follow-ups. They desperately wanted explanations and alternatives.
They did not get that in the March 1 debate. Many questions posed by Election Committee members in that debate were from privileged interest groups seeking assurances their interests, not the public's, would be first. This is why candidates' meetings with Election Committee members should be open to the media.
Who knows what favor-seeking goes on behind closed doors? Who knows what deals are being done to assure votes?
This kind of secretive campaigning for the connected only cannot help but emit whiffs of corruption and collusion.
We know from the budget that billions per year will be spent on unnecessary capital and public works to assure developers' profits during the coming term.
Every other sector of government expenditure sees performance measures and full, indeed exhaustive, justifications applied to every iota of funding requested. Not so for capital works. That money goes out regardless of need, population growth or economic cycles.
And so billions are spent on things the public opposes like filling in the harbor and tearing down heritage sites. But fortunately, the debate at 8 o'clock tonight, broadcast and simultaneously translated by numerous media outlets, was too high profile for the chief executive to ignore.
This time the public will not be exiled to the final few minutes in a sort of perfunctory nod.
Such direct public questioning is about the best we can do to improve governance. It is the best we can do because the public gets to vote directly for just 30 of the 800 Election Committee members.
About 175,000 select professionals, unionists and business people and another 25,000 or so corporate representatives vote for three fourths of the 800 members through functional and special constituency elections.
The rest are appointees from the National People's Congress and other pro-government entities. Only these 800 elect the chief executive. Everyone knows Tsang will "win" in this committee of elites.
The point of participating in this unfair, untransparent, unrepresentative election is that Tsang could be made to defend his ideas and plans to the public. Democrats hope debates would force Tsang to listen to the public, not just the privileged. He has dodged that so far.
But public debate is all that prevents the election turning into a private process of handouts, promises and favors to the few who can vote.
Favoritism toward the privileged distorts judgment and weakens government legitimacy.
That is why choosing a chief executive must be changed to open, fair, direct election by all voters. Only with voting by all can governance of all be governance for all.