Hong Kong votes in a symbolic by-election

Sun Dec 2, 2007 3:10am GMT

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Bu John Ruwitch

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kongers voted in a legislative by-election on Sunday, in a poll which has been likened to a referendum on democracy in the city that returned to Chinese rule 10 years ago.

The contest pits two charismatic former civil servants against each other -- Anson Chan and Regina Ip -- and has been one of the most watched campaigns in recent years, even sparking scuffles between supporters from the two camps.

The final result will not change the balance of power within the 60-member Legislative Council (Legco), but is likely to be widely interpreted as an indicator of the political preferences of Hong Kong people.

"It remains to be seen whether the outcome will have any bearing on the model for political reforms the government will ultimate present (to Beijing). It might help shape how the central government perceives the city's aspirations for full democracy," the South China Morning Post said.

The fractious pro-democracy camp is looking for a boost from Chan, 67, the frontrunner in public opinion polls, after a demoralising drubbing in district council elections last month at the hands of the biggest pro-Beijing party.

Chan made a name for herself as the first Chinese, first female head of the civil service under British rule, and she emerged from retirement a year ago to press for universal suffrage, disillusioned by the slow pace of reform.

Ip, 57, enjoys the support of the city's powerful pro-establishment constituency, which is content to let Beijing decide when and how democracy should be expanded.

Ip is perhaps best known for trying to force an unpopular anti-subversion law through the city legislature in 2003 when security chief. That bid is widely blamed for sparking a protest that drew half a million people into the streets, shocking leaders in Beijing.

Currently, Hong Kong's leader, the chief executive, is picked by an 800-seat committee under the influence of the Communist leadership in Beijing. Half of the legislature is popularly elected, the other picked by "functional constituencies".

The city's constitution states that universal suffrage is the ultimate aim of political reform, but is vague on the timing and roadmap. Analysts say Beijing wants to delay as long as possible.

Chan and Ip both say they favour the introduction of universal suffrage by the next chief executive election, which is in 2012, but they differ on important technicalities, including how candidates could be nominated.

Analysts say a decisive win by Chan could give the democratic camp a boost ahead of a full Legco election next year.

Although she leads polls, the gap has been narrowing and analysts say the pro-Beijing establishment may be better at mobilising voters.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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