Hong Kong matriarchs clash in democracy test

( AFP ) - Two of Hong Kong's most prominent women politicians faced off Sunday in a by-election seen as a key test for the democracy promised when Britain handed the city back to China 10 years ago.

Technically, voters are choosing whether Anson Chan or Regina Ip will win a seat on Hong Kong's Legislative Council -- only half of whose 60 members are directly elected by the people.

But analysts say the underlying issue is the fate of the democracy movement represented by Chan, which was decisively defeated in district elections last month by pro-Beijing politicians.

"This is seen as a fight between democracy and non-democracy," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"The democratic camp is placing heavy bets on this. They can't afford to lose. If they lose, people would say the citizens switch their support to the conservative and that their enthusiasm for democracy has dissipated," he said.

According to the Basic Law, a mini-constitution put forward when Britain ended its colonial rule over Hong Kong in 1997, the territory was supposed to be guaranteed universal suffrage -- but no date was spelt out.

Instead, the 620,000 registered voters in Hong Kong are only allowed to vote for half the members of the legislature -- and only a handful of the 800 electors, most of them loyal to Beijing, who choose the territory's leader.

With a booming economy here and money flooding in from an equally booming mainland, analysts say, the appetite for full democracy may be losing ground to an impulse not to rock the financial boat.

"We'll have to see whether the democrats can muster their own voters to come out," Ma said. "The pro-Beijing camp can mobilise a lot of people to vote."

Laws in Hong Kong are enacted only by majority consent from the Legislative Council and the approval of the chief executive -- currently Donald Tsang. Bills unfavourable to China have been blocked in the legislature.

Because the chief executive is chosen by mostly pro-Beijing loyalists, meanwhile, his decisions are viewed to be influenced by the mainland.

Both Chan and Ip support choosing the chief executive by direct election in 2012, although Ip wants a tougher system for vetting candidates, which critics say will allow only Beijing-friendly politicians to stand.

Six other candidates are running but the race will be a showdown between the 67-year-old Chan, known as " Hong Kong's conscience" during the days of colonial rule, and Ip -- a 57-year-old often dubbed the "Dragon Lady".

The pro-Beijing Ip earned that nickname when she was security secretary over hugely unpopular proposed national security laws, which critics said infringed on human rights and which eventually helped lead to her resignation in 2003.

Chan, the territory's top civil servant in the last years of Britain's colonial rule, was a late-comer to the democracy movement.

Opinion polls put Chan ahead, but her lead has narrowed after allegations from a former anti-corruption official that she got unusually large mortages when she was in government a decade and a half ago.

"I think the result could very close," Ma said.

The polls close late Sunday with results expected early Monday.

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