Amid much criticism of system, Hong Kong chooses new legislature

HONG KONG - Amid gripes about Hong Kong's unpopular leader and the lack of full democracy, citizens and special interests chose a new legislature Sunday that critics say will be unduly dominated by pro-Beijing forces and big business.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa wasn't even on the ballot but came under harsh attack from voters who accuse him of bungling the governance of Hong Kong in the three years since it returned from British to Chinese sovereignty.

Ordinary citizens were able to vote for just 24 of the 60 Legislative Council seats - and exit polling conducted for television ATV showed pro-democracy candidates were expected to win two-thirds of those seats.

Special interest groups - such as business leaders, lawyers and doctors - picked 30 candidates in a system that gives them much more voice than average citizens. Six were selected by a committee - in a convoluted arrangement that opponents say ensures control by pro-Beijing figures and business interests.

That means the political opposition can do little more than use the Legislative Council as a platform to clamor for more democracy and intensify their attacks on Tung's government.

''It's certainly undemocratic and unfair,'' said Martin Lee, the opposition Democratic Party boss who appeared to have won re-election. ''Hong Kong people need a stronger voice.''

Election officials did not expect final results before midnight Sunday - but one certainty was plenty of lingering unhappiness.

''The social undercurrent is very bad,'' said voter Jimmy Leung, a 62-year-old retired restaurateur. Leung accused many influential Hong Kong people of going against their consciences to curry favor with China.

''They've become pro-Beijing imperialists,'' Leung said.

Analysts say a recent scandal involving charges an academic was pressured to stop polling Tung's plunging popularity has only served to aggravate voter dissatisfaction.

Tung voted in a park where a small group of protesters led by longshot candidate Leung Kwok-hung were chanting ''Down with Tung.'' One sat in front of the polling place to scream anti-Tung slogans, setting off a minor scuffle as police moved her back.

''This is not a democratic election,'' Leung Kwok-hung said.

Tung declined to take questions but encouraged Hong Kong's 3 million voters to do their civic duty in the second legislative election since the reunification with China.

But analysts had warned many apathetic people would stay home - and they were right.

Despite clear weather, just 43.6 percent of the ordinary voters turned out, compared with the 53.3 percent who braved a storm to cast ballots two years ago.

Tung visited a vote-counting center early Monday but avoided questions about whether his low popularity had discouraged people.

''There's not just one reason, but we will study it,'' Tung said. Noting Hong Kong's first direct legislative elections were held in 1991, Tung predicted ''the voters will learn from their experience and I think our political system will gradually become more mature.''

Many people grumbled that they didn't have enough voice. Hong Kong's economy is showing double-digit growth, but numerous citizens feel left behind.

''The gap between the rich and the poor has widened,'' said construction worker Chan Tai-man. ''Our wages haven't gone up. I hope to vote in some voices of opposition, only making the noise is pretty useless.''

''My son and daughter are worried about the security of their jobs,'' said housewife Poon Hau-mei. ''We used to go out every weekend, but we don't go out much now because we're always worried about their jobs.''

Tung has not said whether he will seek another term when an 800-member committee fills the chief executive post in 2002, but his unpopularity has hung over the election even as concerns about mainland China's control have largely faded.

Among likely voters, 62 percent are dissatisfied with Tung's performance - a new low point for the former shipping tycoon, according to a recent survey. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

In a campaign full of mudslinging, the biggest bombshell came when the major pro-Beijing political party seen as being aligned with Tung's government - the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong - was confronted by a newspaper report that its vice chairman leaked government secrets to a public relations client.

Gary Cheng quit his party post but stayed on the ballot and appeared to have won election, exit polls showed.


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