Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

HK residents cast their ballots

BATTLE LINES The pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and pro-democracy groups face off in an important measure of voting trends

AFP , HONG KONG

Hong Kong residents cast their votes today in the first elections in the city since huge pro-democracy protests in July threw the former British colony into its worst political crisis in six years.

The District Council election is seen by observers as the first opportunity to see whether support for democratic change remains strong in the community four months after the unprecedented rallies against a security bill rocked the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華).

Some 500,000 people took to the streets of Hong Kong on July 1 in protest at the security bill and to demand more democracy.

The battle between the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), who publicly backed the controversial bill that sparked the protests, and pro-democracy groups will also provide an indication of voting trends for the legislature -- the Legislative Council (Legco) -- polls next September, analysts said.

Voting kicks off at 7.30am and is expected to close at 10.30pm. Some 2.4 million registered voters are expected to cast their ballots.

Ivan Choy, a political commentator at City University, cautioned that past experience showed that good performances in district council polls, held every four years, did not necessarily equate to strong showings in the Legco polls.

"Elections for district councils, which are advisory bodies to the government, tend to focus on community service records and not on political records or issues like the Legco polls, so the effects of July 1 may not be so visible," Choy said.

DAB took 105 seats at the last district elections in 1999, including 22 who were returned unopposed, compared to 83 for the democrats.

This time round, DAB is fielding 206 of the 837 candidates competing for seats in the 400 constituencies while the democracy camp is putting forward 120.

Candidates in 74 of the constituencies have already been elected unopposed, with DAB securing 16 of those seats and the Democratic Party three.

The remaining 326 seats in the 18 District Councils will be contested by 763 candidates.

Another political analyst, Joseph Cheng, agreed the polls would only give a slight indication as to how the public may vote at the Legco polls, scheduled for next December.

"A year was a long time in politics and the environment could change a lot over that period," he said adding that a significant victory for either side was unlikely.

However, Michael Degolyer, a political analyst at Baptist University, forecast that as public dissatisfaction with the government remained at near all-time highs, "a tsunami could result" that could see an emphatic victory for the Democracts.

The pro-democracy camp's program include direct elections of the next chief executive in 2007 and Legco in 2008.

Tung, who's second term in office ends in 2006, was hand-picked by an 800-member committee and currently heads a partially elected legislature.

Of the 60 members that make up Legco, only 24 are directly elected by the public.

Despite agreeing to initiate consultations for constitutional reforms next year, Tung remains deeply unpopular after his ratings sank to an all-time low amid the protests.

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