Sunday's by-elections were never going to be a referendum on universal suffrage, no matter how much pan-democrats involved tried to present them as such. This is just as well, given the low turnout. If this had been a decisive vote on full democracy, the result would have been very disappointing. The reality is that the by-elections, triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrat lawmakers, told us nothing about Hong Kong's democratic aspirations. The record low turnout of 17.1 per cent was not a vote against universal suffrage - it was a rejection by the electorate of the tactics adopted by these parties in their bid to reach that goal. Little more than half a million votes were cast, roughly 300,000 less than those in favour of democrat candidates in the 2008 Legislative Council elections. The turnout fell way short of the League of Social Democrats' modest target of 25 per cent. All five lawmakers who resigned were returned by comfortable margins, but that was hardly a surprise given the boycott by the main pro-government parties. The whole misconceived venture has, in the final reckoning, not been a success. The pan-democrats involved point to the condemnation of the polls by Beijing, which described them as a blatant challenge to its authority and the Basic Law. Although the by-elections were lawful, Beijing's stance was effective in dampening enthusiasm for them. Hong Kong officials and their supporters played their part in this. Less effort than usual was put into promoting the elections. Just two days before the polls, the chief executive and his ministers made an ill-timed and unnecessary announcement that none of them would vote. Some premises usually used as polling stations were not made available this time meaning voters in those areas had to travel further. Even the chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, Mr Justice Barnabas Fung Wah, broke with tradition by choosing not to encourage people to vote (although he did feel a strong enough sense of civic duty to vote himself). None of this reflects well on the government. These measures would have had some impact on the turnout. But even without any help from the government, the turnout would have been low. The aim of the league and Civic Party had been to stir public sentiment and put pressure on the government over its proposed reforms for the 2012 election. But this did not occur. Opinion polls consistently showed that most people did not support the by-election plan. People saw the by-elections for what they were - a needless distraction which would not move Hong Kong any closer to universal suffrage. Claims by the league and Civic Party that the more than half a million votes cast can be compared to a street protest in 2003 by a similar number stretch a point. This was not a protest, it was an election. And they had hoped for a much stronger response from the public. Both parties should reflect on the strategy they adopted. They should have realised the resignation plan did not have the support of the public. Political stunts - especially those which cost the taxpayer millions of dollars - will not help Hong Kong achieve broader democracy. Now the focus must return to where it should have been all along - reaching a consensus on the reform proposals. One positive outcome is that the failure of the by-election plan will strengthen the hand of moderate democrats who have preferred to negotiate with the government. All concerned must strive to reach a deal, hopefully on an improved reform package, which will take our city closer to universal suffrage.