HONG KONG, Nov 19 (Reuters) Hong Kong's pro-Beijing DAB was the big winner in the city's district council elections today, given the party's strong grassroots network and the average voter's focus on economic and livelihood issues.
The humbling result for the pro-democracy camp coincides with a watershed political consultation process aimed at deciding how and when Hong Kong should hold direct elections for its leader and legislature with the approval of the public and Beijing.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution promises direct elections as the ''ultimate aim'' but is vague on a timetable, giving Beijing's leaders scope to dictate the pace. The pro-democracy camp wants direct elections by 2012, but the pro-establishment parties prefer 2017 at the earliest.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) said it had secured 115 of around 400 district council seats after voting that ended yesterday late evening. The Democratic Party won 59 seats, far fewer than expected.
The strong showing by the well-funded and highly mobilised DAB is a marked comeback against the pro-democracy camp, which had swept the previous district polls in 2003 with 140 seats.
''At this time our party is facing tremendous difficulties,'' said Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho, who offered to resign for the poor showing. His party rejected this request.
In 2003, analysts said a massive half million strong anti-government protest on July 1, ahead of the polls, had given the democrats a massive and unexpected shot in the arm.
But this year, the Democrats' lacklustre grassroots work, a galloping economy fuelling perceptions of sagging interest in the constitutional reforms by pragmatic Hong Kongers, had played into the DAB's hands.
''Last time, political topics were rather strong, but for district councils, livelihood issues are most important and the DAB has traditionally been strong in district work, and this has been welcomed by the public,'' Lau Kong-wah, a DAB Vice-Chairman and legislator, told reporters.
While the Democrats had some isolated successes, including in the affluent Peak district, the poor showing caused the head of one of its allies, the ADPL party, to step down.
The grassroots polls were one of the most fiercely contested in recent years, with the two sides grappling over the pace of political reforms -- and eager to consolidate political influence before major legislative elections next year.
''This is really a bad day for the Democrats ... It will help the DAB to win next year's legislative council election, the political climate favours them,'' said City University political analyst James Sung.
A December by-election pitting Democratic champion Anson Chan against pro-establishment rival Regina Ip, will now be closely watched to see if the talismanic Chan might restore some vigour to Hong Kong's wounded Democratic movement.
''We firmly believe that democracy remains a very, very important pursuit of the community ... we firmly believe that the majority of Hong Kong people, roughly 60 per cent ... still want to see democracy as soon as possible,'' Joseph Cheng, a senior member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, told reporters.
''We have to admit, however, that democracy as an entire platform is certainly inadequate. We need to do something more and pay attention to people's livelihood issues.'' Britain handed back Hong Kong to Communist-ruled China in 1997 with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy. The city has maintained free-wheeling business and social ways of life without universal suffrage, an idea the British promoted only in the dying days of colonial rule.
REUTERS SYU BD1500