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Hong Kong greets vote with shrug

Government billboards and banners posted across Hong Kong exhorted: "Your vote can make all the difference!" But the dismal turnout for this former British colony's second legislative election since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 suggests that, for many Hong Kong voters, civic pride lost out to disillusion.

Only 43.6 percent of Hong Kong's 3.05-million registered voters cast their ballots Sunday, down from the 53.3 percent who voted in elections two years ago. Analysts said the slump reflected dissatisfaction with Tung Chee Hwa, the chief executive here who is appointed by officials in Beijing. Turnout also was affected by the flagging interest in a political system in which election results have little relationship to the preferences of ordinary voters and in which legislators have no real power.

Political parties advocating broader democratic representation for Hong Kong residents claimed 15 of the 24 directly elected seats in Hong Kong's 60-member legislature.

But the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing political party backed by some of Hong Kong's richest business tycoons and closely allied with Tung, picked up additional seats. Those advances came despite the fact that the party's leader, Gary Cheng, was embroiled in a political scandal for failing to disclose financial interests that conflicted with his role as legislator.

Under the rules of Hong Kong's electoral system, representatives of Hong Kong's business and professional elite _ whose ballots carry many times more weight than those of the enclave's ordinary voters _ get to pick 30 of the legislature's 60 seats. As expected, electors from these "functional constituencies" cast their votes overwhelmingly in favor of pro-Beijing candidates.

The remaining six slots on the council, selected by an 800-member committee whose members are vetted by Communist Party leaders on the mainland, also fell in behind a pro-Beijing slate.

Martin Lee, head of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's main opposition group, vowed he would continue the fight against what he called Hong Kong's "administrative dictatorship." But he and the legislature's other advocates of direct democracy have few weapons in that battle. Rules of Hong Kong's constitution-like charter, called the Basic Law, grant dissenting legislators virtually no real political power. Mostly, the pro-democracy advocates' positions on the council provide them with a soap box to complain about perceived abuses by the government and Hong Kong's business elite.

But Lee said he'll have to do more than point fingers at Beijing and the Hong Kong government.

"We have internal problems _ the members of our party are not united enough," Lee said. "We will try our best to regain our confidence and walk up the path of democracy once again."

Democratic Party spokeswoman Winnie Kwok acknowledged particularly low turnout for pro-democracy candidates in Sunday's balloting. She said the wide gap between the result's of the election, in which Democratic Party candidates won 9 of the 24 directly elected seats, and public opinion surveys, which show the Democratic Party to have the broadest support among ordinary voters, demonstrates a "strong and rising trend of cynicism" among Hong Kong residents.

"It's clear to voters that the executive authority has no respect for either the council or the will of the people," Kwok said.

Tung, who was not up for election Sunday, also expressed disappointment with voter turnout. He noted that elections remained something of a novelty in this city that was so long under British colonial rule and promised that Hong Kong's political system would "slowly mature."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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