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Hong Kong's Anson Chan to Contest Election

One of Hong Kong's most popular political figures has announced plans to run for a recently vacated legislative seat, a move aimed at re-invigorating the former British colony's pro-democracy movement. As VOA's Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong, pro-democracy lawmakers are hopeful her campaign jumpstarts the territory's democracy efforts.

Since retiring from politics in 2001 as chief secretary, Anson Chan has repeatedly resisted calls from her supporters to assume a more active role, until now. Announcing her candidacy, Chan said several factors influenced her decision to run for public office.

"The degree of community support, plus the fact that we are in the midst of a very important consultation exercise on the whole question of universal suffrage, the lack of public interest, the attitude that the government has adopted in going about this consultation, I think all those were factors which I took into account," he said.

Chan is contesting a legislative seat left vacant by Ma Lik, a pro-China lawmaker who died in August. She is likely to face conservative politician Regina Ip, converting the vote into a clear choice for or against democracy.

Chan is one of several former lawmakers in Hong Kong viewed as a key figure in helping to bridge the 1997 transition from British to Chinese rule. She has remained popular after her retirement, and has become an active advocate of democracy in Hong Kong.

Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government and public administration at Hong Kong's Chinese University, says the democratic camp wants to use the by-election as a referendum on democracy, and Chan's participation can be quite influential.

Ma says that if Chan wins the election, she will bring a temporary boost to the momentum of the democratic cause. But he says in the long run her inclusion in Hong Kong's legislature will probably not speed up a change in policy.

"In the fight for universal suffrage in Hong Kong they have to get the consent from Beijing," he said. "And this is a crucial method, how much bargaining power do they have with regard to Beijing?"

The democratic camp holds less than half of the Legislative Council's 60 seats. Only half of the legislature is directly elected, and since 1997, a committee of 800 mostly appointed members has selected Hong Kong's leader in a process largely controlled by Beijing.

Hong Kong was returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula. The region's constitution, called the Basic Law, guarantees full democracy, but does not say when.

The territory is guaranteed autonomy, and retains its own courts, police force and political system. Most notably, it retains civil liberties not found elsewhere in China. B ut activists and opposition members in Hong Kong's legislature say that it is not enough.

Beijing says universal suffrage must come gradually, and has ruled out direct elections for the chief executive in 2007, and all members of the legislature in 2008. Current debate in Hong Kong is about whether freer voting should be allowed in 2012, as the democrats demand, or delayed well beyond that, as China-backed figures say is preferable.