Hong Kong vote signals thirst for democracy: Analysts

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's legislative election sent a clear message to Beijing that the former British colony's thirst for genuine democracy has not diminished after 15 years of mainland rule, analysts said Monday.

Poorly funded and riddled with divisions, the democratic camp on Sunday still managed to win almost 60 per cent of the popular vote and hold on to their "critical minority" of a third of the seats in the 70-seat Legislative Assembly.

The pro-Beijing parties secured a huge majority of 43 seats with only 40 per cent of the popular vote, thanks to a complicated electoral system that is heavily weighted in favour of reactionary business groups and vested interests.

"Beijing must be alarmed," Hong Kong Institute of Education Professor Sonny Lo told AFP.

"If Hong Kong were to democratise into one big constituency in which citizens were able to cast their votes, democrats would gain the majority."

That is a dream that few in Hong Kong believe is going to happen any time soon, even though Beijing has promised "universal suffrage" for the next leadership election in 2017 and the legislative vote in 2020.

Under the current system installed following the 1997 handover from Britain, just over half the seats in the Asian financial hub's legislature are elected by popular vote.

The remainder are reserved for relatively small constituencies grouped along economic lines and packed with conservative business leaders and Beijing loyalists.

Executive power rests with a chief executive who is appointed by a "small circle" of 1,200 people, including business tycoons with financial interests in mainland China. The incumbent chief is former property surveyor Leung Chun-ying.

Analysts said the system prevents the democratic bloc from translating strong public backing for full democracy into legislative power, even at a time of growing anti-Beijing sentiment.

The leadup to the election was marked by mass protests against a government plan to introduce mandatory Chinese patriotism classes into schools, which forced Leung to abandon the policy on Saturday evening.

Anti-Beijing resentment is also festering over widening inequality, sky-high property prices fuelled by wealthy mainlanders, corruption and the strains on public services from millions of mainland tourists.

But the root of the problem is the lack of real democracy and the feeling that the rules of the game are rigged in favour of the business tycoons who Beijing relies upon to keep the city humming.

Democratic party leaders admit they could have done better at Sunday's polls if they had overcome two-year-old differences over how to push for a fairer system.

Instead, the democratic bloc is deeply divided between the mainstream parties who strive for democracy within the slow, consensus-driven approach promoted by Beijing, and radicals who want full democracy now without conditions.

The leader of the Democratic Party, Albert Ho, resigned and apologised after the party lost two seats in the assembly. He said Hong Kong people had become "increasingly impatient" with the pro-Beijing government.

"I think a lot of voters have decided to choose some people who... play a much more aggressive role in the Legislative Council," he said.

Radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair" for his flowing black pony tail, said the Democratic Party was being punished because "they don't dare to stand up and fight for the people".

Chinese University Associate Professor Ma Ngok said that given such internal turmoil, the democratic camp was "lucky" to win as many seats as it did.

"I don't think they can celebrate," he said.

Even so, the one-third minority is "critical" because it gives the democrats veto power over constitutional amendments required for the introduction of universal suffrage.

Pro-democracy activists believe Beijing is not sincere about giving Hong Kong a genuine system of one-man-one-vote, and will seek to screen the candidates to fix the rules in some way to ensure its interests are protected.

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