Pro-Beijing political parties were expected to do well in Hong Kong's district councilor elections yesterday, with the democracy issue getting a low profile as the economy thrives.
When the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 it was granted a wide degree of autonomy and a pledge that it would ultimately be allowed to directly elect all its legislators and its leader.
Only half of the legislature is now elected, however, and the territory's top leader or chief executive is chosen by a group of 800 Beijing loyalists.
Hong Kong democrats have demanded a faster pace of political reform, while more conservative parties, such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, believe Beijing should set the timetable.
Yesterday's election of about 400 councilors is seen as a test of the opposition democrats' appeal amid an economic upturn, low unemployment and a robust stock market, ahead of more important legislative polls next year.
"Traditionally, people vote for the opposition when they are unhappy with the government. This year, because the political and economic situation is normal, democratic reform is off the agenda and voters will be focused on services in their community," said Li Pang-kwong (李彭廣), a political analyst at Lingnan University.
Li said that with Hong Kong reaping the benefits of China's surging economy, it was unlikely voters would want to upset Beijing by voting in more liberal or radical councilors, as they did in the last district election in 2003.
Hong Kong was then struggling to recover from the devastating SARS outbreak, an economic slump and the government's aborted attempt to push through a despised anti-subversion bill.
Voters then showed their dissatisfaction by handing the Democrats a landslide victory.
This time the democracy issue appeared to play a minor role. A Hong Kong University poll reported 84 percent of voters saying they would choose a candidate for his or her ability to handle livelihood issues, rather than political alliance.
Analysts said that with its deep pockets and extensive network of support, the main pro-Beijing party would probably recover most of its 2003 losses.
Democrat Party founder Martin Lee (李柱銘) said: "If our supporters come out in droves, then we will see a win. If they don't, then our opponents will win."
Nearly 900 candidates were competing for 364 seats on a committee that advises the government on local issues. About 3 million people out of Hong Kong's population of 7 million were eligible to vote. Results are expected today.