09/12/2004, 00.00
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Record turn out in Hong Kong elections, 1.5 million people cast ballot

For Bishop Zen high turnout means victory for democracy.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Hong Kong voters turned out in great numbers to directly choose half of the members of the Legislative Council (LegCo).  An hour before polling stations close almost half of all eligible voters (48.9 per cent) had cast their ballots. By comparison, the overall 1998 elections voter turnout was 53.29 per cent; in 2000, it was 43.7.

In absolute terms, the turnout set a record. An hour before closing 1.56 million voters had cast their ballots compared to 1.48 in 2000. Voters seem to have heeded appeals by politicians, intellectuals and church leaders to go and vote.

After Beijing's opposition to full universal suffrage and direct election to the post of Chief Executive (who is still appointed by China) a heavy turnout was seen by many as a referendum in favour of democracy. It would show that the people of Hong Kong –world-famous for their business acumen rather than for their interest in politics– were quite ready for full democracy.

Record participation is likely to favour a victory by the Democratic Party (DP) , a party often branded by China as "treasonous" and "trouble-making". Elections will also determine whether the DP's former president Martin Lee Chu-ming is elected in the Hong Kong Island riding or not. Catholic, a barrister, Mr Lee is known as the "father of Hong Kong's democracy", something that has cost him a vilification campaign and restrictions by China.

Observers expect DP candidates to sweep the geographic constituencies –which are directly elected– winning 25-28 of the 30 seats available. The other 30 seats represent functional constituencies like trade, tourism, legal profession, etc. Pro-democracy candidates are not likely to win any of them even though with a victory in just five they could gain the majority in the LegCo.

Should such a victory pass, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, already unpopular as a result of the territory's economic and political woes and his total subservience to Beijing, would be further weakened .

Throughout Hong Kong parishes, people have prayed for the success of the elections and the future LegCo members as well as for the territory's and China's welfare.

In a prayer meeting held at Rosary Church on Saturday evening, Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun –who is an unwavering supporter of universal suffrage– called on the faithful to go and vote. "A high voter turnout," he said, "means a victory for democracy."

In his intervention Bishop Zen told people that voting was a civic duty, that they should overcome any doubts they may have over the future. He recounted the less than stellar results of government policies: right to abode denied to children of mainland Chinese with legal Hong Kong residence permits, wage cuts to foreign domestic workers, attempts to pass anti-sedition legislation limiting civil liberties. He also reminded them that Divine Providence can help allay fears or doubts.

Polling stations closed at 10:30 pm local time (2:30 pm GMT). (WK)

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