THE rise of political parties in Hong Kong has left an impression that the District Board elections next month will be hotly contested. But that may, after all, turn out to be an illusion. A record 415 candidates were registered on the first day of the two-week nomination for the 346 seats up for grabs. The tally was immediately hailed by the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Nicholas Ng Wing-fui, as encouraging. Earlier, his deputy, Mr Leung Chi-ming, even anticipated that each seat would attract an average of three aspirants. The figure, however, is likely to be too optimistic. The ratio of three candidates to one seat was reached only in the inaugural District Board elections in 1982, when polling for the New Territories and the remaining urban areas were held on two separate days. The 56 slots in the New Territories were contested by 175 candidates in March that year, while the 76 places in the urban districts lured 230 aspirants. This means on average there were slightly over three nominees in each of the constituencies. Three years later, however, the figure tumbled to just 2.1 contestants for each seat as late-comers realised they might have to face an uphill battle against the incumbents. The ratio failed to recover in the two subsequent elections, as the number of board members returned unopposed continued to grow. This year's initial enthusiasm could be attributed to the fact that most candidates affiliated to the various political parties lodged their forms on the first day. The eight major factions have come up with a total of 382 candidates. The next week is bound to see the nominee count decelerating in the remainder of the nomination period. Some officials at the districts find it more realistic to expect between 1.5 to two candidates for each opening. This will add up to a pool of just about 700, rather than 1,000, nominees as predicted by Mr Leung. The media's intensive coverage also helps create an atmosphere of intense competition, though there is no evidence to indicate that readers are equally excited about the ballot race. The reports, so far, have portrayed this election in essence as a tug of war between the democrats and the pro-China forces. The parties have been described as interested in the District Board polls, primarily because of its direct impact on the future make-up of the Legislative Council. Under the Governor's reform scheme, a transient electoral college will be formed exclusively of the directly elected District Board members next year to return 10 councillors to the 60-member law-making assembly. In other words, a group will gain a Legco seat as a bonus for every 32 elected board members under its command. The press so far has little to offer on the parties' strategies on the future Legco electoral college elections. One gossip column in the Hong Kong Economic Times last week suggested that Mr Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who heads the Meeting Point, would be among the first to opt for the electoral college indirect polls. The paper said Mr Cheung would give up his plan to contest the Legco geographical elections in 1995, because he wanted more time to complete his doctorate thesis. He has thus reportedly opted for the easier route. Mr Cheung is now in Britain and will not be back until the end of the month, but his colleagues were quick to dismiss the rumour. Leaders of the party are adamant that Mr Cheung would step forward as a candidate for the Legco direct elections in 1995. The only complication, they noted, was how to head off a clash with their United Democrats ally, the Reverend Fung Chi-wood, in Tai Po. They also added that it would be premature to plan for the electoral college, before they knew how many District Boards they could secure. The speculation about Mr Cheung appears to be the only published story on this theme. But there are more on the grapevine. The United Democrats have closed ranks with Meeting Point to field a contingent of 123 candidates. The two parties will consolidate into the Democratic Party in October. Nevertheless, they have left out a third party in the liberal camp, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood. The two parties' deliberate move to snub the latter has widened the gap between them. Mr Frederick Fung Kin-kee, chairman of the Association, and a United Democrat councillor, Mr Albert Chan Wai-yip, have even attacked each other verbally over the issue. Despite the animosity on the surface, the embryonic Democratic Party is said to have struck a deal with the Association. It is being said in political circles in Tuen Mun that the democrats had offered to back Mr Yim Tin-sang for the chairmanship of the board, should they manage a majority in the district. The Association, in return, is supposed to throw its weight behind Mr Albert Ho Chun-yan, the vice-chairman for internal affairs of the United Democrats, should he opt for the Legco electoral college indirect polls. Mr Ho failed in a Legco by-election in Tuen Mun two years ago and apparently wants to leave all options open for 1995. Apart from 25 elected members, the Tuen Mun District Board will also include the chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee, Mr Lau Wong-fat, as an ex-officio member. Mr Lau is now presiding over the board. The Democratic Party is contesting 12 of the Tuen Mun seats, while the Association is vying for another eight. The trio thus stand a fair chance of becoming a majority coalition on the board after the elections. Assuming a 70 per cent success rate, the Democratic Party will be able to tuck under its belt at least two Legco seats through the District Board electoral college. Coupled with their allies, they could possibly walk away with three Legco seats. The Association, on the other hand, has a line-up of 38 board candidates. Although the party is unlikely to reach the threshold of 32 seats, it will hold the balance over which faction can get an extra place. It remains to be seen whether such a deal has been hammered out among the liberal activists in Tuen Mun. But there are bound to be such arrangements, once a clear picture has emerged from the District Board polls.