As calls for Hong Kong to be given more democracy gather pace in the wake of the July 1 protest, a small but significant step in that direction was taken in the New Territories yesterday. For the first time, elections for representatives of more than 700 villages were opened up to the majority of residents, instead of being restricted to indigenous villagers. The polls mark the end of an archaic system dating back more than 100 years under which clan members effectively worked out among themselves who would be the village chief. While it may seem surprising that it has taken until 2003 to bring a measure of democracy to the villages, this was only achieved after a lengthy court battle and in the face of fierce opposition from indigenous villagers - those who can trace their male ancestry back to residents of their village in 1898. The new arrangements are far from perfect. Two elections take place in each village, one in which only indigenous villagers can vote, and the other open to all permanent residents who have lived there for at least three years. The idea is that one representative will look after the traditional interests of the clan members - such an ancestral burial rights - while the other will concern themselves with the interests of all residents. It is still weighted in favour of the indigenous villagers, most whom will get two votes. But it is a big improvement on the old system. While the elections are still in the initial stages and will last for another six weeks, there are some promising signs. None of the violence which has at times flared in the past over the polls was seen yesterday and the process appeared to proceed smoothly. There were minor complaints, such as a failure by some candidates to make their policies known to the electorate. Also, candidates in more than half the seats were returned unopposed. But the high average turnout of more than 75 per cent for the elections open to non-indigenous residents was heartening and the interest shown bodes well for any future development of democracy in Hong Kong. It still remains to be seen quite how fair the voting system has been. The Independent Commission Against Corruption has received 42 complaints and 2,200 cases of suspected irregularities have been considered by four special magistrates. No stone should be left unturned in seeking out those who have breached the rules. The fact that the elections took place at all can be considered an achievement. The government had tried to maintain the old system, defending it in court and preferring to try to persuade the indigenous villagers to open it up voluntarily. But after losing the legal battle, officials worked hard to put new arrangements in place which would be acceptable to the indigenous villagers, carrying out a two-year consultation. Still, the indigenous villagers fought tooth and nail to cling on to their privileges claiming their traditional rights would be infringed. In the end, they have had to face reality. The former system was a classic colonial tool used by the British to win support from village chiefs for their policies in the New Territories. But it has no place in the Hong Kong of today. It was absurd that indigenous villagers who do not even live in Hong Kong were allowed to vote, while non-indigenous residents were excluded, even if they had lived in the village all their lives. Broadening the electorate was needed to ensure New Territories residents, who have greatly expanded in number over the years, are adequately represented. After all, village elections are the first stage in a process which can lead to representation on rural councils and even in the legislature. Meanwhile, thousands are expected to gather in Central today for the latest demonstration in favour of more democracy. The changes to the village polls provide a modest start.