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Hong Kong by-election thwarted by Beijing |
By Tom Mitchell in Hong Kong
Published: May 16 2010 13:41 | Last updated: May 16 2010 13:41
Legislative by-elections in Hong Kong, pitched by the leading candidates as a “de facto referendum” for faster political reform, appeared to fall victim on Sunday to intervention by Beijing as voters largely shunned the polls.
Five pro-democracy legislators, one from each geographical district represented in the Legislative Council, triggered the election by resigning their seats in January with a plan to campaign for reinstatement against expected opposition from pro-Beijing parties with a platform demanding direct elections for the territory’s chief executive and full legislature in 2012.
The plan ran into trouble when the pro-government parties decided not to contest the by-election after China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, which usually operates in the shadows, publicly condemned the “so-called referendum” as a “blatant challenge” to China’s authority.
Four hours before polling closed, only 12 per cent of Hong Kong’s 3.4m registered voters had cast their ballots, compared to 45-55 per cent turnout rates in previous legislative elections.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is currently selected by an 800-member electoral college dominated by pro-Beijing businessmen and community leaders. Half of the 60-seat legislature is hand-picked by equally conservative “functional constituencies” primarily representing industrial and professional groups.
Sunday’s flop suggests that voters in China’s freest and most prosperous city, who normally support pro-democracy candidates in contested elections, do not have the stomach to fight for the right to elect their own leaders.
But it has also revealed the degree to which Beijing is prepared to intervene in the former British colony, which was promised autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula following its reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
“After the handover, Beijing’s control of Hong Kong has been ridiculous,” said Allen Lee, a former pro-China businessman and legislator turned pro-democracy talk show host. “It’s not ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ like they promised.”
The territory’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, and his cabinet ministers toed Beijing’s hard line, declaring that they would boycott the polls.
The boycott took the wind out of the pro-democracy camp’s sails, and pre-empted what would have been a robust debate on Hong Kong’s political development.
“Beijing not only surprised us, they surprised the establishment camp as well,” said Tanya Chan, a barrister and Civic party legislator who was running to retake her seat.
Ms Chan and her colleagues on Sunday were “opposed” by a grouping of students – who like their legislator idols support direct elections in 2012 – and an eclectic collection of fringe candidates.
A lack of energy was palpable throughout the campaign. The League of Social Democrats, which joined the Civic party in the by-election plan, tried to rev up its backers at a rally on May 4 in a deliberate echo of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 during which students in Beijing protested for a stronger and more democratic China.
As a few hundred League supporters, all dressed in red, gathered in a public park, a rock band adopted the John Lennon song Imagine in a vain effort to liven up the anaemic event: “Imagine all the people,” the band sang. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us… ”
“They will be lucky if they get a 30 per cent turnout,” Mr Lee said a few days before the polls. “Do you feel an election atmosphere? I would say there’s none. It has been a very effective boycott.”