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Hong Kong democrats face key test

Hong Kong residents went to the polls to elect a new legislature on Sunday, with the democratic camp trying to maintain its watchdog legislative role against resurgent pro-Beijing rivals.

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Hong Kong voters headed to the polls Sunday, with the city's pro-democracy parties scrambling to avoid heavy losses and several high-profile politicians facing potential defeat.

The polls opened in the southern Chinese city at 7:30 am (2330 GMT) with all 60 legislature seats up for grabs.

Despite warm sunshine in the afternoon, government figures showed turnout in the first 11 hours of voting was 10 percent lower than at the same stage of the last election in 2004.

The vote was expected to provide a barometer for pro-democracy parties in the former British colony in the face of growing Chinese patriotism.

Against the background of huge anti-government sentiment, pan-democrats secured about 60 percent of the vote in 2004, although it only earned them 25 seats due to the vagaries of Hong Kong's political system.

Despite the plummeting popularity of the current government, the pan-democrats have not been able to harness the dissatisfaction this time, with polls suggesting their number of seats could fall.

"The maintenance of the stability of Hong Kong and the city's continued development is the most important thing," said Dick Yeung, who voted for former security secretary Regina Ip, standing as a pro-Beijing independent.

"There is already enough freedom in Hong Kong and enough democracy," said the 52-year-old pearl merchant.

In addition to the retirement of heavy-hitting democracy figures Martin Lee and Anson Chan, several other leading lights could be shunted into political obscurity.

Two of the highest-profile -- Emily Lau, a former journalist and staunch government critic, and ceaseless activist "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung -- could lose their seats, a Hong Kong University poll showed.

"Hong Kong will not remain fair, open and democratic unless we are willing to fight," Leung said in a last-ditch advert in the Sunday Morning Post.

Only 30 of the 60 legislative seats were being chosen by the city's 3.37 million registered electors. The remaining 30 "functional constituencies" represent various business and industry interests chosen by select electorates.

Polls were due to close at 10:30 pm (1430 GMT). Results were expected to be in by 4:00 am Monday (2000 GMT).

If the pan-democrats slip below 21 seats they will lose the ability to veto government legislation, which they successfully used in 2005 to block controversial constitutional reforms.

Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage for both its legislature and chief executive when Britain handed back the territory to China in 1997, but no specific timetable was set.

While chief executive Donald Tsang's popularity is slipping after a number of blunders, the pro-Beijing parties who normally suffer from government failings appear in good health.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) could get a bump from the city's growing patriotism, reinforced by a recent visit by China's Olympic gold medallists.

It may also benefit from Beijing's announcement late last year that universal suffrage could be introduced here from 2017, neutering the democrats' key election asset.

But Michael DeGolyer, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said his pre-election poll showed growing patriotism will not necessarily translate into pro-Beijing support.

"People are starting to treat their votes in the same way they deal with their investments," DeGolyer said.

"I do not know what the 'China factor' is. If the definition is 'support your country, vote for the DAB,' that is not the case anymore," he added.

Sunny Poon, a 40-year-old banker, said patriotism was not a factor in how he voted.

"I choose people on what they propose to do and their track record," he said.

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