THEY were meant to be Governor Chris Patten's political triumph. For two years he battled, in the face of entrenched Chinese opposition, to ensure next month's district board elections would be fully democratic, even rupturing relations with Beijing to secure his goal. The abolition of appointed members, and putting all 346 seats up for direct election, was expected to help the Governor's pro-democracy allies sweep to victory. But, as the September 18 polls approach, that remains far from certain. For Beijing, in the words of its Wen Wei Po mouthpiece, has risen to ''meet the challenge'' of fighting elections conducted on Mr Patten's rules. Despite China's repeated pledges to disband the three-tier electoral system after 1997, pro-Beijing parties and politicians managed to field more candidates than the pro-democracy camp. Xinhua (New China News Agency) is closely watching the fight. It is hopeful Beijing's influence at the district level can be enhanced through careful handling of its strategy towards the polls and well aware even a draw will be seen as victory for the pro-China camp. The prize is the chance to embarrass Mr Patten, who runs the risk of having to be accompanied by more leftist district board members on future district visits. Analysts say Beijing also hopes to strengthen its hold on Hong Kong's 18 district board chairmen - whose influential voices can easily embarrass the Government over major issues - as a result of the polls. Of the 762 candidates standing for election to 18 boards, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) has fielded 82. To these should be added the teams from the Liberal Democratic Federation and Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, to make a total of 118 candidates from the pro-Chinese political parties. But, even this is not the entire strength of the Beijing-backed forces. At the local level, there are also pro-China kai fong groups and rural forces contesting seats, meaning the real number of Beijing's allies fighting the polls could be over 200 candidates. Of those, 81 have already been publicly blessed by China by being appointed as Hong Kong Affairs or District Affairs advisers. Such a team is bigger than the coalition of democrats. Their main force, the new Democratic Party, is fielding 132 candidates. Even taking into account the two fringe pro-democracy political parties, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL) and the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, their team still only totals 170. The leaders of the two camps, the Democratic Party and DAB, will directly fight each other in 38 constituencies, with the major battlefields being in Kowloon City and three districts on Hong Kong Island: Central and Western, Wan Chai and Eastern. Election expert Dr Stephen Tang Lung-wai - who has analysed district board polls since they began a decade ago - said a close fight should be expected. ''The two sides will probably draw,'' said the Chinese University lecturer in sociology. ''But, in that case, the DAB will be the real winner.'' That is because the DAB now has only 24 district board members, and a draw with the Democratic Party will mean the party is doubling the number of its seats. Dr Tang said the DAB would probably have the winning edge in Kowloon City, Wong Tai Sin and, on Hong Kong Island, in Eastern District, where it has a solid grass root base. But he expected the Democratic Party to win control of the whole of the western New Territories, as well as Southern and Central and Western on Hong Kong Island. In Shamshuipo, the ADPL is expected to win a majority of the seats. Another expert on district polls, Dr Kam Ping-kwong, a lecturer in applied social studies at City Polytechnic, said the DAB was well prepared for the elections. ''The DAB has planned for the elections for a long time. They have trained a lot of new candidates who have a good working record in districts. In contrast, the democrats did very badly in the past few years in bringing new faces into politics,'' he said. ''The DAB has a very good chance this time,'' Dr Kam added. But Beijing's hopes of profiting from the September 18 polls go far beyond victories by its allies at the ballot box. Beijing is looking for other ways to extend its influence in district politics and, high among them, is recruiting successful independents. Xinhua Hong Kong Branch deputy head Lu Shouxiang revealed last week the Chinese side was considering appointing a second batch of Hong Kong District Affairs advisers after the elections. These would be in addition to the 274 appointed last March and would be part of a united front attempt to recruit independent, elected district board members. ''We should expect that, soon after the district board elections, those elected candidates with no major political background will be invited to Xinhua for lunch or dinner,'' Dr Tang said. ''Xinhua will almost certainly ask them to support its favoured candidates for district board chairmen. ''We should also expect many of those independent new district board members to be appointed as District Affairs advisers,'' he added. ''District board chairmen are very useful, as they can mobilise locals. Although the chairmen already have a very good relationship with the Chinese side, Beijing wants [to exercise] even stronger influence.'' But local National People's Congress delegate Cheng Yiu-tong denied there was necessarily any link between the forthcoming polls and the appointment of District Affairs advisers, although he admitted the Chinese side was keen on unifying locals. ''The Chinese side always works to gather the forces in the districts,'' he said. But building up a united front in the districts is not the main goal of such hard work. Instead, the underlying reason is that the September poll results will directly affect the balance of power in the Legislative Council next year, as all 346 successful candidates will vote for 10 Legislative Council members through the Election Committee, which was the subject of so much controversy during the recent political reform row with Beijing. This means any party which secures the support of 32 district board members is guaranteed a seat in the Legislative Council chamber. Dr Tang said the leftists stood a good chance of dominating the Election Committee. ''As the democrats only have 170 candidates, if you count on a 70 per cent success rate, they would only be able to get four seats on the Election Committee,'' he said. ''But if the Chinese side do well in the polls, with the help and support of independents and the 27 rural committee chairmen, who are ex officio district board members, the pro-Beijing camp will get five seats.'' With all eyes on the fight between the leftists and democrats, the largest political party in the territory has been left stuck in the middle, with little attention paid to them. The Liberal Party, although fielding a 90-strong team of candidates, is not generally considered to be a serious player. THE party has placed most of its candidates in three districts - Sha Tin, Eastern and Tai Po - a decision one leading analyst believes is misguided. ''If they want to get some local bases from which to fight for the Legislative Council next September, they shouldn't choose Eastern and Sha Tin as Emily Lau Wai-hing and Martin Lee Chu-ming [the sitting council members in those districts] are too strong for them,'' Dr Tang said. ''If they just want to get more seats, both districts are not good ones to choose as they are the main battlefield between the Democratic Party and the leftists. ''At most they can win 20 seats,'' Dr Tang said. ''And most of these will be because of the individual candidates rather than the support of the party.'' Liberal Party heavyweight Dr Lam Kui-chun agreed they were only treating the election as a test. ''We don't think it is the real fight for us, even the 1995 Legco election is not a real fight for us. What we aim for is the election after 1997,'' he said. Dr Lam said they did not expect to have an outstanding result but estimated they could grab more than 20 seats. Of all the 18 districts, the newly created board of Yau Tsim Mong - a merger of Kowloon's Yau Tsim and Mongkok - is expected to be the most interesting. A total of 47 candidates are fighting for 15 seats, meaning an average of three in each constituency, with nine political parties involved. ''I have never seen such a big field before, it is very exciting now,'' Chan Man-yau said. The Mongkok District Board member is seeking re-election in the Tai Kok Tsui area, where he is competing with television presenter Kwong Chor-fai. In Tsim Sha Tsui East, there are six candidates vying for one seat, the most fiercely contested in the territory. Dr Tang said this was because there was no dominant political party in the area, largely due to its sizeable moving population. ''If we look back over the past record, very few district board members in the area have been re-elected,'' he said. He said it would be difficult to estimate who would win in the area. ''It is just like a Mark Six lottery, it will pretty much depend on the luck of the candidates.'' Candidate Ng Ching-ming, a 40-year-old driver, agreed: ''I'm not scared of them, even if there are six candidates, I will stand in the election. In fact, everyone has an equal chance.''