Peking makes sure of victory before Hong Kong even votes

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PRO-DEMOCRACY candidates will win by far the largest share of the vote in next Sunday's elections for Hong Kong's legislature, the first to be held under Chinese rule. But they will have no role in government and will only be able to secure a minority of the seats in the Legislative Council.

Unlike other Asian countries, Hong Kong will not suffer from allegations of ballot fraud. There will be no need, as the system has been exquisitely rigged by the authorities to ensure that the most popular candidates have absolutely no chance of gaining control of the legislature.

At the heart of the rigging process is one simple fact: most of the electorate, comprising 2.8 million registered voters, can only elect one- third of the legislators. About 139,000 people representing various social constituencies have the right to elect half the members, while a special committee of 800 supporters of Peking will have the power to fill the remaining 15 per cent of the seats.

The voting system in Hong Kong, much of which was inherited from the benevolent dictatorship of British rule, is highly complex. So much so that opinion polls consistently show that most of the population have no idea how it works.

This is understandable because, not content with ensuring that a minority has the power to elect the majority of legislators, the government has come up with a method to stop popular candidates from realising the extent of their support in the five constituencies open to universal suffrage.

A system known as the "largest remainder formula" has been grafted on to the proportional election system under which seats are allocated in these constituencies. This allows the redistribution of votes away from the most popular party lists once those candidates who took most votes have secured one or two seats. The system is so complicated that it takes three A4-size pages of a government propaganda booklet to explain how it works.

The government overturned the electoral reforms introduced by the last British governor, Chris Patten, within hours of coming into office. These reforms broadened the franchise for those seats elected by various small groups. Now these reforms have been scrapped, most of these seats will be selected by tiny electorates, often without a contest. In the few constituencies which have a sizeable electorate, such as those for teachers and nurses, the democrats are set to win.

The government fears the election system will lead to fewer people voting than in the Patten era. Officials are preparing the ground for that setback by talking about political apathy. Michael DeGolyer, of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a survey of public attitudes, disagrees. "People are not apathetic about their personal freedoms and their human rights, they are apathetic about voting in a rigged system".

Nevertheless he is sure that the Democratic Party, led by Martin Lee, will sweep the board where there is a genuine vote. "It's a revenge ballot", he said. Opinion polls show candidates identified as pro-government will win only three or four of the 20 seats that are genuinely open to universal franchise.

A review of the present electoral system is promised in 2007. But Tung Chee-hwa, the head of Hong Kong's government, has shown little enthusiasm for greater democracy. In March he told an American delegation that a decade might be too short a space of time in which to introduce an elected legislature chosen by all voters.