Hong Kong democrats suffer election blow

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Pro-democracy opposition figures scored three new seats in Hong Kong's parliament, but fell short of expectations, official results showed today, as critics attacked problems with the voting and the count.

Pro-democracy opposition figures scored three new seats in Hong Kong's parliament, but fell short of expectations, official results showed today, as critics attacked problems with the voting and the count.

The opposition camp won 25 of the former British territory's 60 seats, up from 22 in the current legislature, according to final, official results.

Beijing's authoritarian leadership was worried about the outcome of Hong Kong's greatest-yet exercise of democracy, seven years after Britain returned the former colony to the motherland.

The political atmosphere has been highly charged by massive protest marches against the government over an anti-subversion law that many saw as a threat to their freedom, and widespread unhappiness with China's recent decision to rule out full democracy for now.

But the pro-democracy side fell far short of a majority, while the pro-Beijing and pro-government rivals did better than expected.

The most dramatic victory went to Hong Kong's most prominent activist, a veteran protester known as "Longhair" Leung Kwok-hung who is known for burning flags, shouting at officials and demanding that China atone for its deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in June 1989.

Yesterday's contest was plunged into controversy even before the results were tallied. Polling stations ran short of ballot boxes, prompting some angry people to give up rather than wait to cast their vote. Constitutional affairs secretary Stephen Lam apologised and promised an immediate investigation, but critics were not appeased.

"I don't care whether it was a careless mistake or whether it was a conspiracy," said independent pro-democracy politician Margaret Ng, who was re-elected. "One is just as unforgivable as the other."

Election workers carried out a recount of votes on Hong Kong Island after opposition MPs claimed that some ballot boxes had been left unguarded and the initial tally of votes exceeded the number of ballots issued.

"This is a big problem," said well-known opposition figure Martin Lee, who was also re-elected. The recount produced no changes.

Lee's Democratic Party acknowledged not performing as well as it had hoped ever since 500,000 people turned out on July 1, 2003, for an anti-government protest that sparked a so-called "people power" movement that shifted the political landscape here.

Analysts had predicted that the pro-democratic camp, which also includes politicians from smaller parties and independents, could win up to 28 seats.

"Beijing will think the election results are quite positive and will be relieved," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the University of Science and Technology.

Showing their faith in democracy, a record 1.78 million people cast ballots and the 55% turnout was also a record.

Half of the 60 legislative seats were directly elected, with 3.2 million people registered to vote. The other half were picked by fewer than 200,000 members of special interest groups such as business, law and accounting that tend to back Beijing.

Critics say the system is rigged, and ordinary voters made it clear they preferred the pro-democracy camp. The pro-democracy side won 18 of the 30 directly-elected seats, but just seven of the 30 special interest seats.

The Democrats blamed their disappointing performance on scandals that involved two candidates, one of whom was been locked up in mainland China since allegedly being caught with a prostitute last month.

Beijing's allies denied claims they had orchestrated a smear campaign.

The long-haired activist, Leung, raised his arms in victory - not his usual gestures of defiance - as officials announced he had easily scored a win by racking up 60,925 votes.

"Just call me Longhair - no need to call me Legislator Longhair," Leung said, vowing to lend a populist hand to Hong Kong's working class.

Another big win went to outspoken former radio host Albert Cheng, who went off the air in May amid alleged threats over his pro-democracy comments - one of the biggest controversies in the campaign.

Cheng will also prove an irritant to the government. His radio style included ambushing officials on air by dragging them into uncomfortable exchanges.