- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

HONG KONG | Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians fared better than expected in legislative elections, a showing that could strengthen their hand in pushing for greater political freedoms in the Chinese territory, analysts said.

The opposition camp captured 23 of 60 legislative seats in Sunday’s voting, down from their previous 26, according to results released Monday.

Many observers had predicted a far worse beating for the opposition parties as their signature issue - democratic reform - took a back seat to concerns over wages, inflation and poverty this year. A resurgent nationalism, heightened by last month’s Beijing Olympics and a booming mainland economy, was expected to further hurt their chances.

Instead, they won enough seats to hold onto their veto power and block conservatives from redrawing Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to Beijing’s liking.

“They showed more resilience than Beijing thought. They can still claim a mandate,” said Ma Ngok, political academic at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. “It will definitely make the government’s stance more difficult.”

After Monday’s results, many democrats were mum on reform, instead playing up the pocketbook issues that surveys showed topped many voters’ agendas.

Even radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, a well-known democracy advocate and harsh Beijing critic, listed the institution of a minimum wage as the leading priority in his second term.

But Mr. Ma and other analysts said the election has left the democrats in a better position to negotiate for greater representation for Hong Kong’s people when it comes to selecting their leaders.

Currently, only 30 of the legislature’s seats are directly elected, while the rest are chosen by special interest groups that tend to side with China’s central government in Beijing. The territory’s chief executive is chosen by an 800-member committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

Hong Kong won’t be able to elect all of its legislators until 2020 at the earliest under a ruling from the Chinese government announce last year. The executive won’t be popularly elected until at least 2017.

Analysts said the democrats might push for an expansion of the committee that picks the executive and an increase in the number of voting members from special-interest groups that select half the legislature. Both moves could raise the profile of democracy advocates in the two bodies.

Though Hong Kong is under China’s control, it is ruled under a separate political and economic system. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution promises eventual democracy and Western-style civil liberties commonly denied in the mainland.

Many hope that Hong Kong’s limited democracy will eventually spread to mainland China, but there have been few signs that would happen any time soon.

A representative of the central government’s Hong Kong-Macao affairs office in Beijing declined to comment on the election.

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