Albert Ho and To Kun-sun of the Democratic Party, holding flowers, celebrate after winning Legislative Council seats in Hong Kong, on Monday. Pro-democratic parties in Hong Kong were edged out by pro-Beijing rivals in key legislative elections on Sunday. Image Credit: AP

Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s new Beijing-backed leader emerged the big winner of local elections on Monday, his allies holding their seats as pro-democracy groups failed to capitalise on weeks of angry protest against China-linked policies.

The unexpectedly poor showing by the pro-democracy camp led veteran Albert Ho to quit as chairman of the Democratic Party on Monday, even though he was re-elected, after what he called a “bad defeat” in Sunday’s poll.

The broad pro-democracy camp won 18 of the 35 directly elected seats in the 70-seat Legislative Council, which passes policies, budgets and formulates legislation, fewer than expected.

However, it still managed to gain a third of the available seats to give it a crucial veto bloc over future policies, including democratic reforms. They have agitated for full democracy, which Beijing has grudgingly allowed from 2017.

Hong Kong voters voted for a new legislature a day after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying backed down from a plan for compulsory patriotic Chinese education in schools, a policy that drew tens of thousands of people to a 10-day protest.

The education controversy and anti-China sentiment brought more people out to vote — 53 per cent of 3.4 million registered voters cast ballots, up from 45.2 percent in the last poll in 2008 — seen as a likely boost for the pro-democracy camp.

But deep divisions across parties, with some competing against each other in important districts, and the lack of a broad, coordinated strategy allowed better mobilised pro-Beijing, pro-establishment parties to hold their ground.

“We have more votes but less seats. This is a tragic result,” said pro-democracy Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong.

Political analyst Ma Ngok said the pro-democracy camp had suffered a setback that would lead to a more fragmented legislature.

“I think the bargaining power of the whole camp has diminished as a result,” Ma said. “They have not gained any ground despite the seemingly favourable political climate.”

Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, with a vibrant civil society ready to oppose policies seen encroaching on the capitalist hub’s freedoms 15 years after the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule.

Beijing, however, has stalled demands for full democracy and has a strong influence in politics, the media and education.

Since taking office in July, Beijing-backed Leung has had to fight China-linked issues such as dizzyingly high property prices and overcrowding in hospitals that Hong Kongers blame on visitors from China.

“I think his (Leung’s) allies got reasonable results this time round and it will strengthen his confidence in terms of pushing his own policy,” Ma said.

Leung has already pursued a more socially inclusive, populist agenda that some say goes against the grain of Hong Kong’s free market credentials.

“Mr. Leung’s election manifesto places great priority on livelihood issues,” said Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party.

“He’s shown he’s willing to make adjustments, so we will support these policies,” said Tam, who was re-elected on Sunday.

Despite Beijing’s aversion to political reform, Hong Kong remains the most progressive city on Chinese soil. China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, who has overseen Hong Kong affairs for the past five years, has called for speedier reforms to stave off social and economic malaise.

“Hong Kong is a successful experiment that should be encouraged and followed,” said analyst Michael DeGolyer.