Hong Kong voters send pro-democracy message But legislative gains are tempered by Beijing's electoral tampering

May 25, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HONG KONG -- Defying torrential rainstorms and pollsters' predictions of widespread apathy, a record turnout of Hong Kong voters demonstrated their craving for self-rule yesterday, backing pro-democracy candidates in the first popular election within the People's Republic of China.

Despite a storm that flooded at least seven polling places and forced one to be abandoned, citizens grabbed their umbrellas and cast their ballots.

But because the electoral system was carefully crafted by Beijing to manipulate the final outcome, only about 18 of the 60 seats in a new Legislative Council will be held by pro-democracy representatives, although they won more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Hong Kong's complex electoral system means final results won't be known until late today. But both the huge turnout and the DTC broad support for pro-democracy candidates clearly disproved the notion that this commercial hub, known for its wheeler-dealer tycoons and non-stop appetite for money-making, is indifferent to democracy.

Ten months ago, when China regained this former British colony, its leaders promised a doctrine of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong."

Yesterday, citizens of China's new "Special Administrative Region" took the pledge at face value, apparently dumping the leaders of two pro-China parties and returning a seat to Martin Lee, a combative thorn in Beijing's side who was tossed out of the legislature July 1, after a Beijing-appointed provisional legislature replaced Britain's colonial assembly and installed a controversial three-tier electoral system. The system was designed to ensure that pro-business and pro-Beijing parties had firm control of the new legislature, which has few powers of its own.

"This turnout is a victory for democracy," said Lee, who campaigned almost non-stop through Election Day. "The message to me is loud and clear. The people want and deserve democracy."

Exit polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong suggested that Lee's Democratic Party would win nine seats outright and other anti-Beijing factions would perhaps capture another five of the 20 seats directly elected by voters. These victors apparently will include two more outspoken pro-democracy advocates, Emily Lau and Christine Loh.

"A lot of people underestimated the political maturity of Hong Kong people," said political scientist Lo Shiu-hing of the University of Hong Kong.

"We totally underestimated the ability of the parties to mobilize their voters," Lo said.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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