Poll deepens Peking's distaste for democracy

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

China's worst suspicions about elections were confirmed yesterday when the results showed that pro-democracy candidates trounced Peking's supporters in the poll for Hong Kong's first fully elected Legislative Council.

"The Hong Kong people have to pay for it; they should have considered the consequences of voting for the Democrats," said Cheng Kainam, general secretary of the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), as results poured in showing that pro-China candidates, including Mr Cheng, had been defeated by the Democratic Party.

The price was clearly spelt out as voters went to the polls on Sunday when they were reminded by the New China News Agency, China's de facto embassy in the colony, that Peking intended to dissolve all elected councils after taking control of Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. The Chinese government maintains that the limited extension of the franchise was pushed through without its agreement.

China, predictably, described the poll as "not fair, not reasonable". Yet a government statement acknowledged that it would give "patriotic" candidates more experience. In this sense, the elections can be described as a success for Governor Chris Patten, as they attracted active Chinese participation, despite opposition to his electoral reforms.

China's threat to dissolve the legislature might have contributed to the relatively low turn-out of 35 per cent of registered voters, but the vote can also be seen as an act of defiance by those who voted.

The Democratic Party and its allies, the largest pro-democracy grouping, won 54 per cent of the vote. Because of Hong Kong's bizarre electoral system, theycontrol a maximum of 29 out of the 60 seats in the legislature.

Pro-China candidates and independents who are likely to support them on key political issues won 36.6 per cent of the vote, yet they will have a slim majority in the Legislative Council. This is because only a third of the seats are open to election by all electors, with a further nine open to voters in the so-called new functional constituencies, covering theworking population. The rest of the seats are allocated to small groups of professionals and other associations.

"We are always condemned to be a minority," said Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party. He and another poll victor, Szeto Wah, have been singled out as "subversives" by the Chinese government, which may well bar them from future elections.

"The Chinese leaders should ask questions about what went wrong," said Mr Lee. "The answer is simple: Hong Kong people will not be intimidated."

Hong Kong voters are essentially asked to vote for an opposition, because there is no prospect of the winning party having any power. So some of the most outspoken candidates, such as the independents Emily Lau and Christine Loh, the trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, and Martin Lee, polled the highest. After scoring the highest vote in the geographical constituency elections, Emily Lau said: "Hong Kong people vote for me because I am outspoken and articulate, with a very clear stance."

The election can also be seen as a referendum on democratic developments in Hong Kong. The leading parties had near- identical social and economic policies; they were distinguished by their basic political orientation. The only party advocating more conservative economic and social policies, the Liberal Party, managed to secure just two seats in constituencies with a large electorate.

The Democrats have now triumphed in every election since Hong Kong inched towards democracy some 12 years ago. However, unlike other election victors, they have neither power nor responsibility.

Raymond Whitaker, page 15