Accessibility links

Hong Kong's Democrats Hope Elections Will Demonstrate Yearning for Full Democracy - 2004-09-10

With Beijing attempting to influence the outcome from the sidelines, Hong Kong voters will go to the polls on Sunday for legislative elections. Analysts say the election could have an impact on the pace of democratic reforms in the former British colony.

Sunday's election pits a coalition of generally pro-business, pro-Beijing parties against parties advocating greater democracy for Hong Kong.

There are 162 candidates for just 60 seats on Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

Only half of those seats will be directly elected, the other half selected according to a complex system of "functional constituencies" controlled by various business and professional interests.

Nevertheless, analysts are predicting a large turnout - and a strong showing for the democrats - amid widespread frustration with Hong Kong's chosen leader, Tung Chee Hwa.

Christine Loh, a pro-democracy activist, runs Civic Exchange, a leading political research organization in Hong Kong: "We are anticipating there will be a high turnout, possible 55 percent plus," she says. "There will be more people going to the polls than ever." The pro-democracy forces hope to win at least 30 seats on Sunday. A majority would give the democrats more power than they have previously had to influence government policy.

The democrats' broader agenda calls for universal suffrage for Hong Kong, including direct elections for Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2008, and a strong legislative presence would also allow them to keep political reform on the public agenda.

But in April, China ruled out full elections for at least another seven years. Beijing argues Hong Kong is not politically mature enough to handle democracy, while critics say the Chinese are afraid the people of Hong Kong would, if given the chance, elect leaders who would resist Beijing's orders.

Sunday's election is therefore being seen as a referendum on the timing of democratic reforms, as well as on Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing.

Christine Loh suggests that regardless of the vote's outcome, the debate itself reflects Hong Kong's growing taste for democracy. "Here in this small corner of China, this is where discussion of constitutional reform is not discussed conceptually but where it really does matter."

Until recently, Beijing took an antagonistic approach to democracy activists. Early this year, Chinese officials began referring to the pro-democracy leadership as unpatriotic and unfit to serve in office.

In July, several hundred thousand people marched through the streets of Hong Kong protesting Beijing's decision not to allow direct elections.

Following that demonstration, Beijing appeared to move towards a more conciliatory approach. But its critics say it is still trying to influence Hong Kong voters to prevent a democratic majority in the legislature.