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Hong Kong's latest election leaves its legislature more fractured than ever

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Student leader Nathan Law, center, celebrates after his win in the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on Sept. 6.   © Reuters

HONG KONG Hong Kong's opposition camp might breathe a sigh of relief now that it has retained effective veto power over major legislation. Still, the territory's legislature is set to see less unity and more fractures as new radicals push harder for Hong Kong's separation from China.

Opposition candidates advocating for various degrees of democracy have retained at least one-third of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council, the proportion they need to block controversial bills like the election reforms that fueled the "Umbrella Movement" protests in 2014.

Voters flocked to polling stations across Hong Kong on Sept. 4, with some waiting in line more than three hours after the official close of voting at 10:30 p.m. It was the first legislative poll since pro-democracy movements paralyzed parts of the city's financial center two years ago but ultimately failed to secure universal suffrage in the selection of Hong Kong's next chief executive, in 2017.

The legislative election, held every four years, drew a record turnout of 2.2 million voters, or 58% of all those eligible, the highest since the introduction of direct elections in Hong Kong in 1991. The opposition camp grabbed a total of 30 seats, mostly directly elected ones. That is three more than last term and came at the expense of pro-Beijing candidates, who nonetheless remained the biggest winners with 40 seats.

Only 40 seats in the legislature were directly elected. The remaining 30 were "functional constituency" seats chosen by professional and industry groups in such sectors as agriculture and accounting, and these were dominated by the pro-Beijing camp. Twelve uncontested seats in the functional constituencies went to Beijing loyalists.

Some old faces were voted out, including heavyweight pan-democrats Lee Cheuk-yan and Frederick Fung Kin-kee. Pro-Beijing veteran Michael Tien Puk-sun retained his seat, but the big winner of the election was Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, a rural activist who advocated the fair use of farmlands and garnered the most votes of all -- more than 84,000.

Tien, of the New People's Party, did not seem surprised by the results. "Pan-democratic camp supporters may have felt the lack of freshness in the traditional candidates and wanted some rookies to join in," he said.

Other newcomers also made surprise wins. So-called localists who emerged from the Umbrella Movement -- candidates who support self-determination or varying degrees of independence from mainland China -- won seven seats in the election. Youngspiration, which garnered two seats, will be the third-largest party in the opposition camp after traditional parties like the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Demosisto's Nathan Law Kwun-chung, 23, was voted in as the youngest lawmaker, alongside first-time challengers Lau Siu-lai, a community college lecturer, and Youngspiration's Yau Wai-ching, 25. "It shows how Hong Kong people want changes," said Law, an ally of student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung during the Umbrella Movement.

With the emergence of a third force, Hong Kong's legislature will no longer be a battlefield between two rival camps -- pro-Beijing loyalists and the already fragmented pan-democrats.

"Whether the localists really regard themselves as pan-democrats is really doubtful because now the ideological frictions and tension within the opposition camp is unprecedented," said Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, a professor of politics at the Education University of Hong Kong. "Whoever will be elected needs some sort of political finesse and learning to make compromises with one another. If they don't adapt, the [opposition] on the whole will lose out," Lo added.

GATHERING FORCE While still a minority view, the tide of localism has drawn unprecedented scrutiny from the local government. Six candidates were barred from running, including Edward Leung Tin-kei of Hong Kong Indigenous, after some of them refused to sign a form acknowledging Hong Kong as an "inalienable" part of China. The government warned of unspecified "follow-up actions" against pro-independence candidates, but many regard such measures as an attempt to appease Beijing, which considers separatist activities an imminent threat, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, such as Tibet and Taiwan.

A July opinion poll conducted by Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for Communication showed that 17% supported independence when the "one-country, two systems" framework expires as agreed upon in 2047, although less than 4% regarded the outcome as possible.

The U.K.'s handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 came with an agreement promising "a high degree of autonomy" for the territory, but concerns have grown over Beijing's heavy-handedness and encroachment on Hong Kong's freedoms and its economy.

The territory's education bureau stirred controversy over academic freedom last month when it warned that teachers could risk losing their jobs if they do not tone down discussions on independence at schools. Months before the election, ties have been further strained by the alleged abduction of Hong Kong booksellers critical of Chinese leaders and the influx of mainland visitors snapping up everything from baby diapers to hospital beds.

"Four years ago it didn't matter so much who got a seat, but this time we should put down 'Pokemon Go' and cherish our votes since so many things have happened since then," said a first-time voter surnamed Siu, 30.

For some, it was a strategic vote. "I just see a strategic need for some kind of opposition in the legislature to keep the pro-Beijing camp in check," said another voter, Ida Chan.

Looking ahead, analysts expect the election results, while doing little to relieve the current legislative deadlock, will play a role in shaping Hong Kong's future.

Fitch Ratings affirmed Hong Kong's sovereign rating at "AA+" with a stable outlook following the election, but the agency noted that the localist movements highlighted "unresolved social disagreement" over the pace of Hong Kong's democratic development.

The legislature election could also affect the fate of unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who seems to be seeking a second term. His subordinate John Tsang Chun-wah, the financial secretary, had a chance to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou after expressing his intention to "contribute" to Hong Kong.

Under current rules, elected lawmakers would form part of the 1,200-member circle that will choose the territory's top leader next March, with Beijing then approving the appointment. But with more localist activists elected to the legislature, "they are a force that any government cannot ignore," wrote Daiwa economist Kevin Lai in a note on Sept. 5. "The [Legislative Council] election serves as a key reference point for Beijing to decide on the city's next leader."

Others foresee an impact on the legislature itself. The rise of localist influence has revived fears that Hong Kong authorities will seek to tighten national security through Article 23, a highly controversial anti-subversion bill that was put on the shelf after some 500,000 residents marched against it in 2003.

"The dramatization of Hong Kong's legislature is set to give much bigger headaches for the government to push through unpopular bills in the next four years," said Benson Wong, a political scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"Many used to think of the failure of the Umbrella Movement as a burden for Hong Kong, but it turned out to be assets for some new faces, at least for now," Wong added.

Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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