Pro-Democracy Parties Capture Lead in Hong Kong Elections

PRO-DEMOCRACY candidates commanded the results of Hong Kong's first grass-roots elections, although conservative businessmen and China supporters remain a force to be reckoned with, Hong Kong analysts say.

In a debut of the new political structure that British Gov. Chris Patten fought for over vehement Chinese objections, Hong Kong voters elected 346 members to the district boards Sunday in what was viewed as a preview to legislative elections in the colony in 1995.

In results released yesterday, the pro-democracy alliance, the United Democrats-Meeting Point captured the lead with 77 seats and teamed up with smaller pro-democracy parties to gain control of five of the 18 district boards.

But the biggest pro-Beijing party won 37 seats, doing better than expected, while conservative, business-backed candidates came in below expectations with 30 seats. Independents won 50 percent of the total seats in a development that analysts say could swing more votes toward the conservative business camp in next year's legislative poll.

China could co-opt other district-board members when it appoints 200 district-affairs advisers in the next few weeks as part of Beijing's ongoing effort to establish a political structure parallel to that of the British government, political observers say.

``The election provided an opportunity to test the political party organizations,'' says Cheng Kai-nam of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing party.

The turnout of 33.1 percent, only slightly higher than the 32.5 percent turnout for 1991 legislative elections, disappointed democracy advocates who looked for a stronger voter commitment in the face of Chinese threats to disband the British political structure when Beijing resumes control in 1997.

But analysts say the almost 700,000 votes cast were 60 percent more than in the previous election and reflect the broader franchise stemming from Governor Patten's reform package.

Political analysts say that turnout actually represented a higher percentage of the colony's 2.5 million voters than first appeared since the electoral rolls contain many people who are no longer eligible. Thousands of residents have emigrated abroad since the Chinese military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in China in 1989.

Under the Patten plan, the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21, appointed board members were abolished, and district board members were given the responsibility of filling 10 of the 60 Legislative Council seats next year. Twenty will be elected directly, and 30 seats will be chosen by occupation-based constituencies, another Patten change.

Although set against the backdrop of the British-Chinese dispute over Hong Kong's political future, analysts say the election was more influenced by local issues that district board members can influence, such as bus fares and garbage collection. ``The district boards are strong pressure groups on these local issues,'' says Norman Miners, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong.

Relieved to get a higher turnout in vindication of his successful confrontation with China over the reforms, Patten called the vote ``the mark of an open, self-confident, plural society.''

But Wen Wei Po, a China-backed newspaper that had urged supporters to get involved despite Beijing's condemnation of elections, commented, ``Enthusiastically getting involved in the election and recognizing Patten's reforms are two entirely different things.''

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