HONG KONG • The pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong failed yesterday to regain some veto power in the city's legislature in a pivotal by-election, struggling to draw what it hoped would be protest votes against creeping control from Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
The democrats won only two of four seats up for grabs, with the opposition now one seat short of having the power to block most Bills in the 70-seat legislative chamber.
The by-election marked the first time the democratic camp has lost its longstanding veto power via the ballot box, raising fresh questions on the future of democracy and autonomy in the city.
"The breakthrough in this by-election is a shot of confidence for our supporters and for people who hope Hong Kong can move forward and stop wasting energy with in-fighting," said Ms Starry Lee, leader of the city's largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
The polls were triggered when six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted from public office over invalid oaths of office in a move that critics said was politically motivated. The two remaining seats have yet to be filled.
After more than a century of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
Over the past 20 years, however, tensions have simmered and occasionally boiled over with activists pushing in vain for full democracy amid opposition from Beijing.
While some democrats had made appeals for votes to redress the injustice of the disqualifications and to safeguard the city's autonomy, they struggled to overturn what some saw as voter malaise.
A turnout of 43 per cent, far less than the 58 per cent for full legislative council polls two years ago, suggested voters could have become fatigued with the democrats' struggle.
"For the whole democratic camp, it's a political defeat," said Mr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"It gives people the impression that even if the government uses what people regard as problematic or even illegal means to strip lawmakers of their seats, or to disenfranchise the public, the public isn't reacting very strongly."
The opposition still has a chance to claw back its veto power when by-elections are held for the remaining two seats vacated by the disqualifications.
No date for those contests has been set.