Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Monday, 8 September 2008 12:12 UK

Hong Kong Democrats survive polls

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Pro-democracy candidates Audrey Eu (R) and Tanya Chan (L) celebrate their poll wins on 8 September 2008
The pro-democracy camp scored a better than expected result

The Beijing bounce fell flat, Broomhead and Longhair won, as did the legal eagles, while the business party looked bankrupt.

Those are some of the new realities after Hong Kong's most bitterly-contested elections for the Legislative Council, the nearest thing to a parliament this former British territory has.

Expectations that the Beijing Olympics had fuelled enthusiasm for all things Chinese at the expense of the desire for democracy - the Beijing bounce - were thwarted.

Instead, candidates with individual flair and clearly-defined platforms including at least a hint of concern for democracy were voted into office.

Pro-China independent Regina Ip, nicknamed Broomhead in the past for an unfortunate hairstyle, won her entry into politics; a pro-Hong Kong and pro-poor campaign returned Leung Kwok-hung, known as Longhair, to office.

Pro-democracy credentials swept the Civic Party into a better position than even its own many barristers had hoped; but the pro-business Liberal Party, described by critics as content-free, had a drubbing at the polls and must be considering its future.

Grass roots

Analysts are concluding that Hong Kong's voters looked not only at personalities but at issues ranging from livelihood to democracy.

The result carries some key lessons about local politics: strong grass roots support is necessary to win, and voters are becoming more discerning about what politicians claim to stand for.

That may seem self-evident in mature democracies. For Hong Kong it marks an arrival at "normal politics", commentator Stephen Vines said.

What this election has shown is that even in adverse circumstances, the democratic groups have come out pretty well
Danny Gittings

Just 11 years out of British colonialism and now autonomous under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong's electorate has not had much chance to exercise its free will yet, but election results suggest that it would like to.

Perhaps most surprising to some leaders in this conservative society is the realisation that even when livelihood issues are important, so too is democracy.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang had called on the people to vote for those who would work closely with government - but voters largely did the opposite.

Mr Tsang's, and indeed Beijing's, emphasis on "harmony" does not seem to have spread among the majority of voters despite long-standing images of Hong Kong people as only interested in money and stability.

Highlighting the expectation of a pro-democracy debacle, one local paper, the Hong Kong Standard, had a front-page banner headline: Disaster for Democrats.

But the leading figures of the feisty democracy camp survived: the Civic Party's Audrey Eu and Tanya Chan, the Democratic Party's Kam Nai-wai, the League of Social Democrats' Leung Kwok-hung (aka Longhair), Frontier Party leader Emily Lau and Civic Act-up's Cyd Ho.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung (L) talks to a policeman as they stand in front of a cut out depicting Chief Executive Donald Tsang on 7 September 2008
Outspoken lawmaker Longhair won re-election to the council

The Legislative Council comprises two sections: half of the 60 seats are voted for directly while the other half are voted for by representatives of business and professional groups.

Some democrats eschew involvement in the latter as they are not fully democratic.

But those seats too gave democrats victory, notably in the legal sector with Margaret Ng's resounding return to office.

"What this election has shown is that even in adverse circumstances, the democratic groups have come out pretty well," said Danny Gittings, an analyst and expert on constitutional law.

A clear percentage of how much of the popular vote went to each camp is still awaited but Mr Gittings expects it to be about 60% for the democrats - consistent with voting four years ago and indicative of the democrats' resilience.

Strategic errors?

For the pro-government party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), election results were mixed. Leading politician Jaspar Tsang Yok-sing won his seat easily, but running mate Choy So-yuk missed out.

That is probably because voters were drawn away from DAB by the appeal of the independent Regina Ip, who engineered a transition from civil servant to popular politician.

Independent Regina Ip campaigns on 7 September 2008
Independent Regina Ip has taken votes from the pro-China party
Ms Ip is a former security minister who tried to introduce draconian legislation which in 2004 provoked huge anti-government demonstrations, leading to the replacement of China's chosen Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa by incumbent Donald Tsang.

In other areas, the DAB scored massive totals, but the seat allocation system limited their impact.

"I didn't expect the pro-establishment camp to get total control; the system itself has a stabilising mechanism in it and the result is not much change," said Lau Nai-keung, a pro-China commentator.

"The DAB did well, but they could have done better. They are strengthening from election to election, which is only to be expected, but there were strategic errors," said Mr Gittings.

Liberal demolition

The Liberal Party is the prime loser, with long-time leaders James Tien and Selina Chow voted out; Mr Tien has already quit as party leader and discussions are afoot on where the party goes from here.

The party has been the pro-business supporter of the government, but even some of its supporters admit that a perception had grown that party members were in politics for personal advancement.

"It's not clear any more what they stand for," said Mr Lau.

The Liberal Party has not developed strong grass roots support at all, and has yet to learn the ways of popular politics, some analysts suggest.

The apparent voter demand for representatives who know their districts and share the concerns of ordinary people is perhaps one of the larger lessons from this poll.

This new-found "focus on bread and butter politics", is a sign of healthy development in Hong Kong's democracy, said Mr Vines.

Wong Yuk-man celebrates his victory
Wong Yuk-man's victory highlights the LSD's growing appeal

Longhair, as Leung Kwok-hung is known, has been a lone maverick in the sombre halls of the Legislative Council - with his Che Guevara T-shirts, long hair and shouted slogans.

He will now be joined by a fellow member of the League of Social Democrats, Wong Yuk-man, confirming the relatively new party's appeal.

His success, and that of union-affiliated figures, has been attributed to their proven commitment to the majority of Hong Kong people who are not rich, elite or well-connected.

Many commentators have concluded from this that voters care most about fairness - the sense that there should be a level playing field with opportunities for all.

Fairness was the slogan of the Civic Party, whose growing dominance of the democracy camp was reaffirmed at the expense of the older and fracturing Democratic Party.

This Legislative Council will face key law-making challenges.

These include setting a minimum wage and securing new electoral arrangements to try to implement China's vague promise of a kind of full democracy by 2017.

In that process, although only the government is allowed to propose legislation, it will face stringent scrutiny, if not outright vetoes, from the pro-democracy camp.

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