Nearly one million people cast their votes in elections widely seen as a test of public support for political change The district council polls made history last night, with nearly one million voters casting ballots. Turnout was more than 44 per cent, a record that top officials said would help promote public debate on the post-2007 democratic reforms. The figure, widely seen as the first test of support for political change since the mass protest against the government on July 1, was significantly higher than the 35.82 per cent turnout in 1999. The turnout rate was higher than the 43.57 per cent recorded in the Legislative Council polls in 2000. Five hours before balloting closed, Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung conceded that the July 1 march had an effect on the turnout. 'This will help us in promoting a wider discussion within the community on the longer-term constitutional development in Hong Kong beyond 2007,' Mr Lam said. 'I think it is a very good start that Hong Kong people are demonstrating such a keen interest. I need to promote consensus and discussion within and among the Legislative Council members. 'I also need the community and the government to engage in discussion so that whatever proposals to be put forth in the next few years, there will be broad interest and acceptance among the Hong Kong community on the way forward.' According to exit polls conducted by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme, Ip Kwok-him, the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong vice-chairman, was set to lose to The Frontier's Cyd Ho Sau-lan in the Kwun Lung constituency. DAB legislator Choy So-yuk was set to defeat veteran protester Leung Kwok-hung in Kam Ping, while her DAB colleague Yeung Yiu-chung was tipped to lose to Democrat Wong Tak-chuen in Mei Foo South. Some 34 per cent of the 2,200 voters interviewed in the exit polls had taken part in the July protest, and one-third of the marchers said their incentive to vote had increased as a result. More than 80 per cent of the voters backed universal suffrage for the chief executive elections and the Legco polls in 2007 and 2008 respectively. 'The July march obviously had an effect. People who protested on July 1 continued to express their dissatisfaction against the government through the ballots,' said academic Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, convenor of Power for Democracy. 'Beijing and the Hong Kong government should get the clear message. They cannot avoid the issue of democratisation any more.'' Although the district councils are merely advisory organs with limited power over district amenities and hygiene, the elections have been seen as crucial in shaping Hong Kong's constitutional review in the wake of the July 1 march. The battle for some seats was keenly fought, with political celebrities from rival camps going all out to woo support, knocking on doors in residential housing blocks and distributing flyers. Of the councils' 529 seats, 102 will be appointed by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and 27 reserved for the rural committees. Of the 400 seats up for grabs, 74 were returned unopposed at the close of nomination, leaving 763 candidates canvassing the 2.4 million votes for the remaining seats in 18 districts. Winners will start their four-year term from January. The Democrats fielded 120 candidates; DAB, 206; Liberals, 25; Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, 37; and Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, 23. Mr Tung said the high turnout rate demonstrated Hong Kong's civic awareness. But he failed to mention the democratic review. 'The turnout is very high, exceeding 44 per cent. Also the elections are conducted in a fair and open manner, which demonstrates civic awareness, something to be proud of,'' he said.