If there was one positive outcome of the voting for Election Committee members on Thursday, it was that however low the turnout, it served as a reminder that the first post-handover elections were on their way. With all of the 800 seats to the grand electoral body now allocated, the complex yet significant process of electing the first Legislative Council on May 24 will soon enter its final round. The nomination period for the elections will begin on Thursday. So will the election campaign, although election politics have started in earnest behind the scenes. Matters which might have been seen as part of the usual political round have already taken on an added significance. Take the controversial bill that might exempt Xinhua and other mainland bodies from at least 14 laws. Until last night, the Liberal Party was caught in a dilemma over deciding its stance, with some of its core leadership worrying the issue had been politicised by the Democratic Party. Joining the Democrats' calls for delaying the bill so the first Legco can make the decision might be seen as playing into the hands of rivals who want to set the election agenda. But endorsing a piece of doubtful legislation might be costly. It could become ammunition for their competitors in the upcoming campaign. An unexpected concession from the Government in promising a review of laws that should also bind state organs provided timely leeway for the Liberals. Putting aside the fact that there was a divergence of legal opinion on the bill, the controversy surrounding it offers a glimpse of what might be in store over the next two months as the jockeying for votes intensifies. The Democrats, making their political comeback, will try to direct the agenda to include such political issues as Xinhua's role. By showing they are concerned about public worries over Xinhua's secretive ways, the Democrats are trying to press home the message they have not been gagged by the handover. Party vice-chairman Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said: 'We'd like to tell our supporters we have not changed after reunification. 'Many are saying there's no politics after the handover. It's all economic and livelihood issues. We will show that we are still talking about democracy and human rights - things we consider important.' His colleague Lee Wing-tat said election surveys showed that voters believed character and trustworthiness were important criteria when it came to deciding who to vote for. 'We will position ourselves as a party which is firm and the one you can trust, in contrast to the DAB, which is always shifting its ground,' Mr Lee said. The DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong), carrying the political baggage of being 'pro-China', is hoping time is on its side. It blamed the 'June 4 factor' for its crushing defeat in the 1991 polls, while the stigma of being pro-Beijing was also seen as being costly in the 1995 elections, when two of its heavyweights - chairman Tsang Yok-sing and then secretary-general Cheng Kai-nam - were defeated. The central government and its representatives in Hong Kong may have acted with reasonable restraint over the past nine months, but that does not necessarily mean the China factor will not emerge or be played up during the campaign. It may be a tactical move, but the DAB is trying to focus public attention on economic and livelihood issues. In the wake of the economic recession and volatile financial markets, it wants voters to believe it is 'devoted to Hong Kong' and concerned about bread and butter issues. Despite being founded by mainly middle-class professionals who still make up most of its members, the DAB has now positioned itself as a grass-roots political party. This is clearly aimed at appealing to the largest bloc of voters in geographical constituencies. After two major defeats in the 1991 and 1995 polls, the DAB cannot afford another humiliation next month. Its leadership hopes that by playing down the political factor in these elections, it will at least be able to fight on an even footing with its major rival - the Democrats - in the geographical polls. This rivalry will be a major feature of the five geographical battles, but the business-oriented Liberal Party will not play such a major part. It is looking more to the 2000 elections. The party's strategy signals a major shift towards a two-pronged plan to establish a sphere of influence in the functional and geographical constituencies. Of the five geographical battles, the Liberals are contesting four, although only its chairman Allen Lee Peng-fei stands a real chance. By raising their party banner through the territory-wide elections, the Liberals are making a belated attempt to establish their bases before it is too late. With the gradual reduction of Election Committee seats, the functional constituencies will become increasingly competitive, with the Liberals and other business-oriented parties, especially the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance (HKPA), as the main contenders. The challenge to some Liberal Party leaders from the HKPA and independent candidates in their functional seats has caused alarm. They are in danger of losing their power base in the conservative business sector, but are not yet able to find a new source of support - and the seats that would go with it - through popular elections. Over the past year, the Liberals have noticeably widened their agenda to cover concerns among the middle class and the grass-roots. They have aligned themselves with unionists to call for the scrapping of the construction worker importation scheme and voted in unison with the grass-roots parties in blocking an increase in fuel tax. This party is repackaging its image as a liberal force, aiming to promote ways to create wealth that benefit everyone in the long run and addressing the immediate needs of the underprivileged. The party's strong advocacy of the selling of public housing flats to rental tenants and a greater awareness of environmental issues is targeted at the lower-middle class. As one longtime legislator observes, the Liberal Party is hoping to thin out the base of support for the Democrats through the Tenants Purchase Scheme. Traditionally, public housing residents have been a crucial source of votes for the grass-roots parties. Now, the legislator argued, public housing residents might change their way of thinking - and their political orientation - when they became flat owners. Whether such a fundamental change occurs remains to be seen. But it is not just a coincidence that the Democrats themselves are also widening their agenda from grass-roots to middle-class concerns, reflecting changes in a society that is becoming more affluent and educated. These changes may be reflected in the voting pattern of the 2.8 million voters in the May elections. More important, however, is public reaction to these first post-handover polls. What has emerged as the most important indication from Thursday's sub-sector elections is that voters have not responded with added zeal and enthusiasm now that Hong Kong is no longer a British colony. Few have heeded calls from the powers-that-be to come out to vote to show that the polls mark a new era in which 'Hong Kong people are ruling Hong Kong'. The reason for this is simple. The voter base has been narrowed considerably from the 1995 elections, making a mockery of such a political slogan. On Thursday, some voters said they cast 'empty ballots' to show their disapproval of the 'small circle election'. It is likely that a considerable number of voters will express their opposition to the new electoral methods in different forms on May 24. Multimillion-dollar government propaganda and emotive appeals by the administration cannot assuage feelings of dismay, and resistance, over the electoral arrangements. Tung Chee-hwa should make a strong pledge to further democratise Hong Kong in future elections. Even though the Chief Executive might not be able to alter the parameters outlined in the Basic Law, there is ample room for wider public participation and representation in the three sets of elections - geographical, functional constituencies and the grand electoral college. A clearer commitment, as well as an early start to concrete preparations for a switch to full universal suffrage by the year 2007 from Mr Tung would remove doubts about the future of democracy and encourage political participation for a clear long-term target. Only by doing so will May 24 be remembered as the beginning of democratic rule in Hong Kong.