Mon, Oct 02, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Hong Kong's Democratic Party ailing

FADING AWAY Hong Kong residents who were hoping that the party would help bring full democracy were feeling let down as it was turning into a shadow of its past

AP , HONG KONG

Times are tough for Hong Kong's Democratic Party. Even the group's leader acknowledges the group's popularity is fading, and the Democrats aren't planning to field a candidate in the city's leadership race.

The party's troubles are depressing for those who had hoped it would evolve into a powerful force that would help bring full democracy to the former British colony that was returned to China nine years ago.

The party has been weakened by squabbling, scandals, a challenge by a new party and rumors that Chinese Communist agents have tried to infiltrate the group.

Some analysts say that the Democrats need to reposition themselves as moderates if they want to continue playing a key role in pushing for greater democracy.

"The Democratic Party shouldn't get too radical when fighting for democracy in Hong Kong as it doesn't want to have a tense relationship with the central government" in Beijing, said Li Pang-kwong (李彭廣), a political science professor at Lingnan University.

The group, established in 1994, was the biggest political party during the final years of British rule. It attracted people who were worried about the future of Hong Kong after the territory's return to China.

The Democrats also won a lot of support and respect for their bold condemnation of China's bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989.

Many feared the violent suppression of the protests signaled that Beijing would also quickly snuff out the civil liberties that Hong Kong has long enjoyed.

The Democrats looked like the best hope to defend the city's freedoms.

But all the worst-case scenarios haven't happened since the 1997 handover.

Street protests are routine, and the lively media often criticize and lampoon Chinese leaders -- though some critics say self-censorship is common. Hong Kongers still enjoy freedoms that Chinese can only dream about.

Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" model, which was designed to allow a wide degree of autonomy. Voters are allowed to choose half of the 60-seat legislature, but the city's chief executive is picked by an 800-member committee.

It would be extremely difficult for the Democratic Party to win the leadership race because the election committee is stacked with figures loyal to Beijing.

The last election last year was won by Beijing-backed veteran civil servant Donald Tsang (曾蔭權), who trounced the Democratic Party's candidate and chairman, Lee Wing-tat (李永達).

The Democrats say they have no plans to field a candidate in the race next March because it would be a waste of money.

Tsang is expected to coast to another victory.

An opinion poll by the University of Hong Kong in August reported that the Democratic Party only ranked seventh on the list of the 10 most popular parties.

One of the most popular groups was the Civic Party, which was founded last March by a group of pro-democracy professionals, mostly lawyers recently elected to the legislature.

The Civic Party has threatened to steal away the Democratic Party's role as the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement.

Lee acknowledged that his party's popularity has fallen, but he said he wasn't worried about its future.

"There's so much debate going on in the community. It's normal for people to have different views about us," he said.

Lee insisted that the Civic Party had no influence on his party's fading popularity.

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