'Umbrella Soldiers' take seats in Hong Kong elections

Dennis Chong

Hong Kong (AFP) - Young supporters of Hong Kong's democracy movement, known as 'Umbrella Soldiers', took seats in the city's first vote since mass street protests -- but pro-Beijing forces dominated the polls in a key test of public sentiment.

The spotlight was on Sunday's district elections to gauge whether support for the democracy movement could translate into votes.

While a new generation of pro-democracy campaigners unexpectedly won a handful of seats, the balance of power remained largely the same, thanks to a better-funded and better organised pro-Beijing camp, analysts said.

Established democratic parties also struggled to come up with a new message, analysts added, with two veteran incumbents losing their seats.

It was the first time Hong Kongers had gone to the polls since tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets last year demanding fully free elections for the city's next leader, in what became known as the "Umbrella Movement".

The rallies were sparked after Beijing insisted candidates for the planned first public vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 would have to be vetted by a loyalist committee.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back by Britain to China in 1997, but there are fears that Beijing's influence is growing.

The democracy movement has splintered and stalled since the protests failed to win concessions on political reform, with younger candidates pulling away from the old guard.

Dozens of 'Umbrella Soldiers' stood for election Sunday. At least four won seats in an election that saw a record 47 percent turnout of more than 1.4 million.

"It's a total surprise. I feel the Umbrella Movement definitely woke up many people who never cared about the district council and politics to give their first vote," Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying, 28, who won against a pro-Beijing candidate, told local news channel TVB.

"We will prove we're serious," added Kwong Po-yin, 29, of new pro-democracy group Youngspiration, who also won.

- Surprise defeat -

The pro-establishment camp acknowledged the inroads made by new candidates.

"I'm a little surprised by the defeat," said Chris Chung of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), who lost to Chui Chi-kin, 46. Chui said he was running for the first time inspired by last year's rallies.

"Since Occupy, many youngsters registered as first-time voters. They showed their power," added Chung.

There are 431 representatives on the 18 district councils, which advise the government on local issues.

Pro-Beijing groups retained a significant majority as analysts had expected.

The DAB, the main pro-establishment party, won 119 seats.

The Democratic Party, the largest pro-democracy party, dropped four seats from 47 to 43.

However, the Neo Democrats, who broke away from the Democratic Party in 2010 and promote a more Hong Kong-centric approach to reform, won 15 of a possible 16 seats.

Youngspiration garnered 12,000 votes, although only one of its nine candidates won.

"Our battle to get back Hong Kong has just begun," said the group's spokesman Baggio Leung.

"To some extent, the Umbrella Movement has galvanised a new generation of voters," said Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies.

"But the overall result is pretty much unchanged... Beijing should be reassured."

Pro-government parties had succeeded in drawing support from key groups including recent arrivals from the mainland and elderly constituents, he said.

Meanwhile the more established democratic candidates failed to make an impact.

"The problem is that they don't have a new message," said Lam.

"They have been very poor in grooming the next generation."