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Hong Kong set to get first female leader in Carrie Lam

Above: Mrs Lam, flanked by her husband and son, is all smiles after her victory.

Above: Banners calling for universal suffrage and slamming the "small circle" election by about 1,000 members of Hong Kong's elite are hoisted by protesters outside the polling station.

Hong Kong

THE race to become Hong Kong's next leader was easily won on Sunday by the city's former No 2 official Carrie Lam.

The 59-year-old Mrs Lam, who has spent 36 years in public service, last holding the post of chief secretary since 2012, secured 777 votes from the 1,194-strong Election Committee in Sunday's poll, surpassing the 601 needed to win.

Her tally also far eclipsed the 365 votes that came in for closest rival and former city finance chief John Tsang, 65, and the mere 21 captured by retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, 71.

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Under Hong Kong's unique election system, only Election Committee members - meant to represent Hong Kong's various sectors - get to vote for the city's chief executive.

The Chinese central government will have the final say in appointing Hong Kong's next leader, but with her widely-reported support from Beijing, Mrs Lam is virtually guaranteed the top job despite lagging behind Mr Tsang in popularity polls.

There had been growing criticism of the "small circle" election system in the lead-up to the first Chief Executive election since the 2014 Occupy Central mass pro-democracy protests.

Several demonstrations were held in the days before Sunday's polling, with about 1,000 people joining a march on the eve of voting.

Tensions were high and police presence heavy as a few groups from both the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps faced off outside the polling station on Sunday while voting took place.

Banners bemoaning the "scam election" and calling for universal suffrage were hoisted high along with the iconic yellow umbrellas that have come to symbolise Hong Kong's independence movement.

Protesters also made their way into the vote-counting venue, their yellow placards in contrast with the red Chinese flags waved fervently by the opposing pro-establishment supporters in the public gallery.

Frustration was also apparent among Election Committee members, four of whom had their secret votes invalidated deliberately, including one who wrote in Chinese: "Civil disobedience. No fear. I want genuine universal suffrage."

The political divisiveness was not lost on Mrs Lam, who in her victory speech pledged to mend rifts.

"Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustration. My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration - and to unite our society to move forward," she said. "Values such as inclusiveness, freedoms of the press and of speech, respect for human rights, and systems which have taken generations to establish, such as the independent judiciary, rule of law, and clean government, are matters that we Hong Kong people find precious and are proud of. As your Chief Executive, I shall do my utmost to uphold 'one country, two systems' and to guard our core values."

Mrs Lam had been plagued by controversy over issues such as backpedalling on her initial decision to retire this year from politics entirely, and her signing of an agreement to build a HK$3.5 billion (S$630.5 million) Palace Museum, inspired by its Beijing counterpart, without public consultation.

Political analysts attributed her eventual victory to the consolidation of the large pro-establishment voting bloc making up about 40 per cent of the Election Committee, and strong support from the business sector, in particular from tycoons such as Li Ka-shing and his two sons Victor and Richard, who had expressed support for the lone female candidate. These allowed Mrs Lam to not only defeat her more popular rival Mr Tsang, but also come out with more votes than her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, who won in 2012 with 689 votes.

"In the last election, Beijing authorities only made up their minds in the last week, so it was more difficult for them to consolidate the pro-establishment votes," political analyst Ivan Choy told The Business Times. "But for this election, it was quite clear they had made up their minds several weeks before, so they had a longer process to try and collect the votes."

Lau Siu-kai, a former adviser on Hong Kong affairs to the central government, said Beijing's role in the election results could not be denied.

"This election was of course affected by Beijing. Beijing tried very hard to convince pro-establishment people to support Carrie Lam. Even though we are talking about secret ballots, most pro-establishment electors attribute a lot of importance to the candidate who can gain the trust of Beijing," Prof Lau told BT. "Many people understand that without the support of Beijing, it would be difficult for the Chief Executive to obtain policies favourable to Hong Kong."