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Hong Kong: District Elections Dominated by Pro-Democracy Voices - 2003-11-24

Hong Kong voters handed a victory to pro-democracy politicians in the first elections since a series of anti-government rallies earlier this year pushed the government into withdrawing controversial security legislation.

In district elections that are usually dominated by issues such as garbage collection, this year's race became a fight between democracy advocates and pro-China parties.

Crowds cheered early Monday morning as pro-democracy candidate Cyd Ho beat a candidate from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, one of Hong Kong's biggest pro-China parties. Ms. Ho says the strong show of support for pro-democracy candidates means the government needs to allow democratic reforms.

The Democratic Party claimed 92 seats on the district councils, compared with 86 in the 1999 elections. Early estimates show 10 seats were won by other candidates who advocated greater democracy.

In contrast, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong has shied away from endorsing for immediate democratic reforms. It lost 21 seats in Sunday's election, and the party's head, Jasper Tsang, says he will step down.

The district councils advise the government on neighborhood issues such community services, and have no role in passing legislation. But political analysts say the election indicates that residents still want government reforms. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents demanded more say in government during several mass protests in July.

The show of discontent forced Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, to retreat from a contentious security bill introduced at the behest of Beijing. Many critics said the bill would erode civil freedoms.

Yeung Sum, who heads Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy party, says residents want to directly elect the next chief executive. "We promise that we will take an active part to continue to promote democracy in Hong Kong and work closely with other democrats to prepare for the political review," he says.

Hong Kong's constitution opens the door for greater democracy, by indicating that the people may directly elect their leader in 2007. Now the chief executive is chosen by a select group of people, many of whom have business interests in China and ties to Beijing.

More than one million residents - about a seventh of the population - cast ballots in what local media say was the largest voter turnout in Hong Kong's history.