THERE is not much doubt who will be declared the next leader of Hong Kong on March 26th: Carrie Lam, who until recently was the head of the territory’s civil service. That is because the Communist Party in Beijing prefers her. The “election committee”, which will make the decision, is stacked with people who will bow to the party’s will. Far more in doubt is whether Mrs Lam will command public support. Her main rival for the job is trying to show that he has more of it. If he is right, that will matter hugely: Hong Kong will soon get a new leader, but also, very probably, more of the social unrest that has beset a series of unpopular ones.

Three candidates had secured the minimum of 150 nominations that were needed from the nearly 1,200-member committee by the March 1st deadline. Mrs Lam was far ahead of the pack, with 580 backers. The man widely seen as her most credible rival, John Tsang, who was Hong Kong’s financial secretary until recently, secured 165. The third, Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge, got 180 nominations. But most observers expect Mr Woo to be eliminated in the committee’s first round of voting.

The Communist Party’s support for Mrs Lam as the next chief executive was hinted at when she stepped down in January to compete for the post (she is pictured at the press conference announcing her candidacy). The central government quickly accepted her resignation. It had waited a full month before agreeing to Mr Tsang’s decision last year to resign for the same reason. Earlier this month senior Chinese officials reportedly told a group of Hong Kong grandees that Mrs Lam would be the best choice to succeed the current, widely disliked chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. His successor will take office on July 1st.

It is not clear why Chinese officials are backing Mrs Lam so strongly. “I’m puzzled myself,” says Mr Tsang. (He had once been tipped as the favourite by local media, perhaps reading too much into his handshakes with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, at international gatherings.) It is possible that the party may worry about Mr Tsang’s exposure to the poisonous influence of America, where he lived in his teens and 20s (although Mrs Lam studied in Britain and has two sons and a husband who are British citizens).

More to the point, perhaps, is that Mr Tsang shows a bit too much interest in political reform. He describes the lack of progress with it as a “continual challenge to the government’s legitimacy”. The central government had offered to tweak the way the chief executive will be chosen this time: members of the public would be allowed to vote, but only for candidates approved by a committee like the current one. Pro-democracy legislators vetoed that plan two years ago. China has refused to countenance any other change.

Mrs Lam, from China’s perspective, is a safer pair of hands. She helped draft the failed plan for electoral reform, and doubtless pleased Chinese officials by showing no sign of wanting to backtrack on it despite weeks of protests, known as the “Umbrella Movement”, that erupted in response to the proposal. Mr Tsang has not offered a clear alternative to that plan. But the support he enjoys among pro-democracy members of the election committee will reinforce China’s suspicions that he is more of a liberal than Mrs Lam. Almost all of those who nominated him were from the pro-democracy camp. All of Mrs Lam’s backers were from the rival one. (The committee is made up mostly of politicians and representatives of industries and professions who are pro-establishment.)

Cut and thrust

Mr Tsang and Mrs Lam have very different personalities. Mr Tsang’s social-media accounts show him in sporting poses: in one he is surrounded by young people, whom he is teaching to fence. He uses the tactics of his favourite sport to describe his political style. “I am basically a defensive player…I like coming back from behind.” Mrs Lam is less charismatic. She appears uncomfortable meeting members of the public, and remote from their daily lives. She seemed flummoxed by navigating barriers at a train station and admitted that she did not know where to buy toilet rolls.

Mr Tsang has made the transition from bureaucrat to politician with greater ease. He is one of the first contenders for the chief-executive job to ask the public to contribute money to his campaign “instead of getting huge cheques from rich people”. He has raised more than HK$3m ($390,000) this way. One public-opinion poll, commissioned by the South China Morning Post, has put him 14 percentage points ahead of Mrs Lam. Mr Tsang says evidence of public support for him might encourage members of the committee to back him, too. That is unlikely, except among the minority of members who support greater democracy (some of whom see him merely as the lesser of two evils).

There has been speculation that the Communist Party is so suspicious of Mr Tsang that if he were to win the election it might even prevent him from taking up the post. Last month the territory’s first post-colonial leader, Tung Chee-hwa, told an audience in Beijing that the central government would not appoint someone whom it did not trust—a remark that was widely interpreted as referring to Mr Tsang. Mrs Lam similarly raised eyebrows in January when she reportedly told a closed-door meeting that she had decided to run to prevent a constitutional crisis that might arise were someone to win whom the central government refuses to appoint. Mrs Lam later said she was not referring to any particular contender.

Far more likely is a crisis caused by the appointment of someone who is not much liked by the public. Mrs Lam appears to acknowledge this. She said she would face “huge difficulties in governance” if she won the election but another candidate proved more popular. Mr Tsang also sees such a risk. He says that if the election committee chooses someone who is not the public’s favoured candidate, that would heighten “people’s expectations for universal suffrage”.

China’s refusal to allow free elections has fuelled the recent growth of groups demanding greater autonomy, or even outright independence, for Hong Kong. The appointment of another unpopular chief executive would probably boost their support—and increase the risk of further intervention by the central government aimed at silencing them. In November China’s rubber-stamp parliament issued a ruling on how Hong Kong’s legislators should take their oaths (“sincerely and solemnly”). It was clearly intended to prevent newly elected independence-leaning lawmakers from taking up their seats. Two of them were subsequently disbarred. A court is now hearing the cases of another four lawmakers, who the government says should be expelled for violating the oath-taking rules. They include two who support “self-determination” for Hong Kong.

There are many who oppose the Umbrella Movement campaigners and their localist successors. On February 22nd thousands of policemen joined a rally in support of seven fellow officers who had been jailed for beating an Umbrella Movement protester in 2014. Their unusual gathering is likely to reinforce a sense among pro-democracy activists that the generally well-liked police are becoming less neutral. Mrs Lam—assuming she wins—will take command of a divided society.