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Hong Kong Legislature OKs Election Law

Government: Former Democratic Party lawmakers denounce new rules of proportional representation.


HONG KONG — After a marathon 18-hour debate, Hong Kong lawmakers approved a new election law today that critics claim is a rollback of democracy under Chinese rule.

As the sun rose this morning, the 60-member Provisional Legislature voted to change Hong Kong's electoral system from the "winner take all" method similar to the United States' to proportional representation--a system the government says will prevent one party from dominating the legislature. Elections are scheduled for May.

The Provisional Legislature also limited the number of people who will be allowed to choose the corporate representatives who will occupy 30 of the 60 seats, disenfranchising nearly 2.5 million residents who were eligible to vote through their companies in the last elections.

"This a great leap backward for democracy," said Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party, which held the previous legislature's largest bloc of seats before it was dissolved when Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule on July 1. Under the new system of proportional representation, the Democrats are not expected to fare as well in the next elections.

On their way to vote Saturday morning, members of the Provisional Legislature walked past former lawmakers from the Democratic Party who were gathered at the doors of the legislature building to denounce both the new rules and the government's expectation that the draft bill would pass without change.

Hong Kong's new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, had urged the appointed members of the legislature to approve the rule unchanged, and an administration official warned before the debate that the government would override any amendments that significantly changed the proposals.

The Provisional Legislature's president, Rita Fan, threw out the most serious challenge, an amendment proposing a return to a "single seat, single vote" system.

But a few members of the legislature, which was appointed to convene for a year to bridge the gap between the elected council that was pushed out July 1 and the new one to be elected in May, bridled at the expectations of automatic endorsement.

"I suspect that the administration believed initially it would have been plain sailing, that we would literally be a rubber stamp and allow the bill to go through without any effort, without any amendment, and indeed without hard lobbying by the administration," said Ronald Arculli, leader of the pro-business Liberal Party. "Well, wake up, government! I hope the past several weeks have shown that this council doesn't work that way."

After the long hours of debate, the interim body approved it 29 to 9 with 11 abstentions. They debated 20 amendments--none, however, that would have significantly altered the government's proposals--and approved two that will slightly widen representation for social workers and the textile industry in the council.

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