Pressure may ease on Hong Kong leader after early poll results

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2012 8:38 PM
Pressure may ease on Hong Kong leader after early poll results

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Political allies of Hong Kong's new Beijing-backed leader performed solidly in city-wide legislative council elections despite recent controversies over contentious China-linked policies, potentially easing pressure on his administration.

Hong Kong voters, many fuelled by anti-China sentiment, thronged to vote for a new legislature on Sunday, a day after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying backed down from a plan for compulsory patriotic Chinese education in schools, a policy that drew tens of thousands of people to a 10-day protest.

A higher voter turnout -- 53 percent of 3.4 million registered voters cast their ballots, up from 45.2 percent in the last election in 2008 -- was expected to benefit the opposition pro-democracy camp.

But deep divisions across pro-democracy political parties and the lack of a broad, co-ordinated strategy seem to have allowed better mobilized pro-Beijing, pro-establishment parties to hold their ground despite the tide of discontent.

"It is going to get more fragmented (the legislature) because I think the Democratic Party has suffered a setback ... and I think the bargaining power of the whole camp has diminished as a result," said political scientist Ma Ngok at the central vote counting centre on Monday.

"They have not gained any ground despite the seemingly favorable political climate."

While a University of Hong Kong exit poll suggested the democratic camp might clinch several of five so-called new district council "super-seats" that have given these polls a slightly more democratic flavor, the democrats themselves conceded a lackluster showing for the 35 directly elected seats in the 70-seat chamber.

"It's a really difficult situation," said veteran pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-yan. "I think we should re-evaluate our strategy."

Lee said the national education controversy and anti-China sentiment helped get more people out to vote but thought those votes were not being distributed in an effective way.

Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, enjoys a high degree of autonomy. But Beijing has resisted public pressure for full democracy and has kept strong influence in politics, the media and education.

Since taking office in July, the Beijing-backed Leung has been fire-fighting a string of China-linked controversies, including dizzyingly high property prices and overcrowding in hospitals that locals blame on new migrants and visitors from mainland China.

Sunday's polls were a test of public support for Leung and his pro-Beijing allies on the one hand and the opposition pro-democracy camp on the other, which is seeking to maintain its one-third majority to give it veto power over policies.

"I think his (Leung's) allies got reasonable results this time round and it will strengthen his confidence in terms of pushing his own policy," said political scientist Ma.

(Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn and Sisi Tang; Editing by Paul Tait)