HONG KONG (Reuters) - Anson Chan, the former head of Hong Kong’s civil service, has won a hotly contested and highly symbolic by-election for a seat in the city’s legislature, in a vote that was widely seen as a referendum on democracy.
The victory by the 67-year-old woman dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience” by supporters was good news for the city’s pro-democracy political camp, which suffered a beating in district council elections last month at the hands of the territory’s biggest pro-Beijing party.
Accepting victory in the early hours of Monday, a grinning Chan said the results proved that Hong Kongers wanted universal suffrage by 2012, the next election for the city’s leader.
“My experience on the campaign trail has convinced me even more that genuine democracy is the only way of ultimately safeguarding our freedoms and values and of building a compassionate, fair and more just society,” Chan said.
“The results of this election indicate that Hong Kong people are anxious to push forward on democracy.”
Chan’s margin over her main rival, Regina Ip, was higher than expected and analysts said that bolstered democratic camp claims to represent the aspirations of the majority for democracy.
Despite losing, a strong showing by the pro-establishment Ip highlighted the re-birth of a politician who is remembered for trying to force an unpopular anti-subversion law through the legislature in 2003 when she was security chief, analysts said.
That bid is blamed for sparking a protest that drew half a million people into the streets, shocking leaders in Beijing.
Now, analysts say, Ip, 57, is well positioned for a run in full Legislative Council (Legco) elections next year.
Chan beat Ip by over 38,000 out of the more than 321,000 votes cast on Hong Kong island on Sunday.
“I think it shows that a lot of middle class people in Hong Kong still care about democracy, even though the economy is getting better, the stock market is rising, and the economy is more dependent on China,” said Ma Ngok, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“This is something that Beijing needs to think about.”
Since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 10 years ago Beijing has afforded the territory sweeping autonomy in many areas, but not in political reform.
Six other candidates ran in Sunday’s by-election, but the Chan-Ip rivalry created one of the most watched electoral contests in recent years, even sparking scuffles between supporters from the two camps.
Currently, the chief executive is selected by an 800-seat committee under the influence of the Communist leadership in Beijing, half of the legislature is popularly elected and the other is picked by “functional constituencies”.
The city’s constitution makes universal suffrage the ultimate aim of political reform, but is vague on the timing and roadmap.
Fonda Chui, 46, an event organizer, said she voted for Chan. “I understand there is very little about democracy that we can do in Hong Kong ... But we need somebody who stands up on the side of the people,” she said.
Chan made a name for herself as the first Chinese, and the first female head of the civil service under British rule, and, disillusioned by the slow pace of reform, she emerged from retirement a year ago to press for universal suffrage.
Editing by Giles Elgood