Hong Kong's Anson Chan steels herself for tight race

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HONG KONG, Oct 22 (Reuters) Hong Kong's former top civil servant Anson Chan today formally signed up for a legislative election, though without key backing from the business community, in what analysts see as an increasingly tight race.

In formally submitting her nomination form for the December 2 by-election, Chan elicited the support of 200 eligible voters including family, top former government officials and politicians -- but no prominent tycoons from the business sector.

''I have not actively tried to get (nominations) from the business community,'' Chan told reporters.

''I didn't want to make things difficult for some business people,'' she added, reflecting the business community's engrained conservatism and reluctance to ruffle Beijing's feathers by backing a democracy advocate like her.

Chan, a talismanic public figure sometimes called ''Hong Kong's conscience'', recently stepped out of retirement to contest the by-election -- in a bold bid to reinvigorate sagging public calls for direct elections in Hong Kong by 2012.

While many consider her a frontrunner to win the election involving some 600 thousand voters on Hong Kong island, some analysts said the lack of business support would hurt her.

''Some ''brand names'' from the business sector are a necessity to attract people from the upper-middle class or even from the grassroots supporters,'' said James Sung, a political analyst at Hong Kong's City University.

''Hong Kong people trust the prominent names from the business sector,'' he added.

On the other hand -- Chan's main rival in the election, the pro-establishment, former security chief Regina Ip, has won the backing of a powerful clique of businessmen and prominent public figures, that has significantly boosted her bid.

Chan was also recently criticised for ''insensitively'' breaking off early from a pro-democracy march to visit a hair salon, diluting her perceived commitment to fighting democracy.

Hong Kong's pro-democratic camp has pushed for universal suffrage by 2012, but recent signs have suggested Beijing is cold on such swift progress, preferring 2017 at the earliest.

President Hu Jintao said in his opening speech to the 17th Party Congress last week that Beijing firmly opposed attempts by ''external forces'' to interfere in Hong Kong's affairs, in what some said was a veiled attack on the pro-democracy camp and Chan.

REUTERS SG VC1415

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