Meddling by Peking backfires in HK poll

Pro-democracy candidates have again triumphed in Hong Kong elections, despite warnings from Chinese officials on the eve of polling to avoid voting for "trouble-makers". Final results for the first fully elected municipal councils released yesterday showed that the Democratic Party, led by Martin Lee, branded a "subversive'' by China, retained its position as the territory's most popular party.

The Democrats' most spectacular victory came in the working-class Kwun Tong district, where Szeto Wah, one of its leaders, defeated the incumbent and social-rights campaigner, Elsie Tu. Mrs Tu had never lost a election but evidently suffered from her recent appointment as a Hong Kong adviser to the Chinese government and the high-profile campaigning support she received from pro-China organisations. The Democratic Party secured election of 23 councillors in all.

However, the main pro-China party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), made a respectable showing, ending up with eight seats. A smaller pro-democracy party also won eight.

Stephen Tang, an election specialist from the Chinese University, said the unprecedented level of Chinese official activity in the election was counter-productive, as it encouraged voters to turn out and support pro- democracy candidates.

On the eve of the election Wang Rudeng, an official from the New China New Agency (NCNA), which acts as Peking's de facto embassy in the territory, urged voters to support "patriotic'' candidates. In the weeks before the poll, NCNA officials, for the first time, openly campaigned for "patriotic'' candidates and played a mediating role to ensure that pro-China candidates were not in direction competition.

The campaign appears to have paid dividends in some rural areas where traditional local leaders aligned themselves with the pro-China camp. Just under half of the 43 candidates who are official advisers to the Chinese government managed to secure election.

The Liberal Party, a pro-business grouping formed by appointed legislators, once seen as the major opposition to the Democratic Party, is steadily fading. It mustered three candidates for the election; only one was elected.

Traditional voter apathy prevailed, although the turn-out rate inched up by 2.7 per cent, with a quarter of the electorate voting where there was a contest. Sunday's poll was conducted under the controversial constitutional reform package initiated by Governor Chris Patten, which has incurred China's wrath. Hitherto a number of seats were filled by appointees.

Although the election has some significance in itself, all eyes are now on September's legislative-council elections, which are seen as the definitive test of the political strength of the pro-China and pro-democracy forces. The message of the municipal elections is largely positive for the democrats, who have done remarkably well to sustain such high levels of support but is far from dispiriting for the pro-China camp, which is running strongly in second place.

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