Unprecedented turnout in Hong Kong vote

Democracy candidates picked up at least one more seat in parliament, according to exit polls.

Despite an 11th-hour barrage of innuendo and scandal aimed at them, democracy-oriented candidates appeared to benefit Sunday from a record voter turnout in an election viewed widely as a symbolic clash between the differeing value systems of China and Hong Kong.

Reliable exit polls for much-anticipated legislative elections, and a record turnout of 1.56 million people (nearly half of registered voters), have democrats claiming a popular, albeit toothless mandate for greater fairness and political self-rule here.

Still pro-democracy forces called the election an important next step toward the right to choose their leaders in future votes. However, a leader among the democrats, Martin Lee, expressed disappointment in exit poll results, blaming it on the electoral system.

Establishment parties like the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), ran on a pro-Beijing platform of a stable future and patriotism, and cast the democrats as radicals, if not traitors.

Hong Kong's 60-member parliament, called Legco, is not powerful. It can suggest changes, but can't mandate them. It can oppose unpopular legislation or spending packages, but can't independently initiate or fund programs. Since 1997, the legislature has mainly been captive to the executive branch and the policies of Beijing-appointed chief Tung Chee-hwa.

Hong Kong political sentiments are typically so mild that even harsh critics agree it is not in the city's interest to have a permanent confrontation with Beijing.

Yet feelings among ordinary people have run deep - dating to the SARS crisis last year, and to a "people power" movement, started largely by lawyers and judges, over an effort by chief executive Mr. Tung to stifle free speech and religion, and to greatly enhance police powers. Protest marches in the past 14 months twice brought 500,000 people to the streets.

Ng Zhang, for example, ended her European vacation in time to fly back and vote Sunday. Ms. Zhang grew up in crowded and sweaty public housing in East Kowloon.

"Democracy is something we don't yet have," Ms. Zhang says. "We need direct elections in 2007 and 2008 because Tung Chee-hwa is not good for us. We aren't asking for independence. We just want change."

Depending on how one counts seats and influence, democrats in Hong Kong need to win anywhere from 25 to 29 seats for a majority in the legislature. At press time, and based on Hong Kong University exit polls, democrats scored 18 seats in the direct elections. DAB candidates scored 9. It also appears that a famous street-protest gadfly nicknamed "Long Hair," who always wears a Che Guevara t-shirt, will win a seat. His candidacy started as a bit of theatrical irony, but evolved into a serious bid.

Outside polling stations Sunday, many residents said they voted mainly to send a message to Beijing. In the teeming blue-collar shopping zone of Mong Kok several people insisted that it was folly to oppose Beijing, but that it was part of Hong Kong's future survival to carve out the kind of special autonomy that was promised after the 1997 handover: "Hong Kong is part of China," says a man who called himself Francis and said he used to work for General Electric. "But we should have autonomy and we don't. It has been taken."

Partly, what democrats say they wish to address are anomalies in the Hong Kong political process.

Set up by Britain and altered by China right after the 1997 handover, the Hong Kong system is extremely complex. Half the legislative seats are directly elected by the 3.2 million registered voters. The remaining 30 seats are elected by a pro-Beijing coterie of 180,000 residents, representing 30 different industries and professions. Yet in this election, 11 of these special seats are uncontested.

That system is skewed to benefit the pro-China interests in Hong Kong, despite the fact that the popular vote runs heavily toward the "pan-democrats," as the assorted parties of reform-oriented politicians are known.

In the current election, democrats also complained that the popular vote does not operate fairly, since a system of "lists" means that some candidates with a fraction of the votes still "win" seats.

In this system, even highly popular candidates can lose. In the current race, for example, Martin Lee, the best-known of the democrats warned for weeks that his reelection is not assured. It now appears he will take a seat. But to illustrate: The two democrat lists in the Hong Kong central district could get 320,000 and 190,000 votes - while the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing party, could score only 50,000 votes. Still, currently, DAB would get a seat.

In 1997, Beijing eliminated an entire layer of civic representation, one that had some power over the executive purse, and, more importantly experts say, was a sort of political minor league - providing training and experience for future office holders.

Yet in recent years a number of the 30 "functional constituency" seats have crept into an "independent" category.

The electoral struggle is not just an abstract difference between two political systems. Rather, it is a kind of rough dance between two markedly different cultures. China, for all its economic reform and rising power, nonetheless decided ten years ago to delay its "political reforms."

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