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Hong Kong votes in key election

Monday, September 10, 2012    

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HONG KONG, (AFP) — Hong Kong votedyesterday in legislative elections seen as a test for the pro-Beijing government, after it was forced to scrap mandatory Chinese patriotism classes in the face of escalating protests.

The government has been besieged by protests since it took office in July with support from Beijing, and a strong vote for democratic parties will be seen as a rejection of the mainland's growing influence in the former British colony.

Tens of thousands of student-led demonstrators surrounded government headquarters for a second consecutive night on Saturday, calling for the withdrawal of the unpopular plan to introduce Chinese patriotism classes in schools.

The rallies, which waxed and waned for 10 days straight and included hunger strikes and a Tiananmen Square-style democracy statue, became a rallying cry for democratic parties.

Critics of the policy said it amounted to Chinese Communist Party brainwashing, citing state-funded course materials praising the benefits of one-party rule.

In an election-eve policy reversal, the city's leader Leung Chun-ying dropped the 2016 deadline for the classes to be introduced and said they would no longer be mandatory.

"The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education," he told a news conference late Saturday, blaming the previous government for the policy.

The protests ended on Sunday but analysts said anger at the government's handling of the education row would not dissipate so quickly and could still boost turnout for the pro-democracy camp.

Polls closed at 10:30 pm with results not expected until Monday.

Turnout was about 53 percent, almost eight percent higher than the previous legislative elections held in 2008, and about 2.6 percent lower than the record turnout at the 2004 polls.

A high turnout rate could be positive for pro-democratic parties, which are thought to be better at marshalling their voters.

The new legislature could pave the way for universal suffrage as promised by Beijing in 2017 for the job of chief executive, and by 2020 for the parliament.

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