SOME may wonder if all the fuss over the past two years was worth it, if last week's district board elections are anything to go by. Indications are that the political reform row, not to mention the most radical constitutional changes the territory has ever seen, have had little impact on most ordinary Hong Kong people. Not only were the vast majority as uninterested in voting as ever before, but those who bothered to go to the polling station cast their ballots in much the same way they did before Governor Chris Patten's arrival. That, of course, was not the general verdict on last Sunday's elections; too many people had too much at stake in stressing their historical significance to spend much time noting the striking similarities with the past. After all, they were the first - and, some fear, also the last - fully-free local polls to be held in the territory. A high price had been paid to allow them to take place: the Government had judged them worth rupturing relations with Beijing for. Having a vested interest in proving they had made the right choice, the Government pronounced the district board elections a turning point in Hong Kong's history. So, too, for their own purposes, did the political parties. Even the press, which had devoted countless column inches to the run-up to the polls, could hardly bring itself to admit that the real message behind the voting figures was how little the territory had changed. That was why the Government got away so easily with declaring the election a success when the turnout rate rose by only a negligible 0.6 per cent, barely a quarter of the rise recorded at the last district board polls, in 1991. Officials instead persuaded the press to trumpet as a triumph the 64 per cent rise in the total number casting their vote - something Mr Patten would never have got away with in Britain, where it is the turnout rate which counts. Certainly it is no real proof of increased popular interest in the polls. Nearly 40 per cent of the extra electors were 18 to 21-year-olds, a group only this year enfranchised under the one political reform agreed between Britain and China, making impossible any true comparison with the number voting in previous polls. Another, less popular, way of interpreting a turnout rate that was essentially unchanged from 1991, is that the Patten reforms have only succeeded in galvanising the same politically-aware minority - regular voters even before the Governor's arrival - into a frenzy of activity. However, they failed to enlarge their numbers to any significant extent, leaving the overwhelming majority as apathetic as ever. Equally, voting patterns seem to have changed little. Much was made, mostly by relative newcomers to the local political scene, of the leftist camp's supposed success at the polls, with the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) winning 37 seats. But few noted that the pro-Beijing camp traditionally does well at district level. In 1991, hard-core leftists captured at least 50 seats, even without the help of a high-profile party. Analysts say that, this time round, half of the DAB's supposed 'gains' simply consisted of walking into seats that their allies already held. This relative lack of change in voting behaviour is even more apparent in the case of the Liberal Party, now revealed to be a carbon-copy of Maria Tam Wai-chu's Liberal Democratic Federation, who all but vanished from sight after performing poorly in the 1991 polls. This time, the Liberal Party has done even worse, with just 18 district board members, many of whom are now likely to see the writing on the wall and defect. Despite the party's attempt to talk up its prospects, it now has no hope of success in next year's elections and has become an historical irrelevance. In marked contrast, the Democratic Party had every interest in playing down its success last week. This fosters the fiction of the party being under serious threat from the leftists and so keeps its army of volunteers hard at work for next year's elections. Yet, despite winning slightly fewer seats than expected, nothing could disguise the fact that the Democrats retained a convincing lead - and disproved the much-hyped '1997 effect', under which Hong Kong people were expected to vote more pragmatically as the handover approaches. Given that, it now seems likely that even if Beijing carries out its threat to hold fresh polls in 1997, the results will be the same, whatever electoral system is used. But the real message from the thread of continuity in last Sunday's polls was a dismal one. If radical political reforms cannot boost the turnout rate for the district boards, there is no reason why it should do so at any level. That means next spring's municipal council polls may see a turnout rate as low as 23.1 per cent, the percentage recorded in the equivalent 1991 polls. Even the votes cast in next September's Legislative Council elections may be no higher than the 1991 figure of 39.2 per cent. All in all, despite the advent of Mr Patten, last week has shown that the apathetic majority are here to stay.