The opposition Democratic Party claimed 92 contested District Council seats Sunday, up from 86 four years ago, according to results released Monday. The pro-Beijing, pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, or DAB, got 62 seats, 21 fewer than last time.
The lopsided returns showed the "people power" movement - which exploded with an anti-government march by 500,000 people July 1 - may also have some staying power.
"I believe the government got the message," said Yeung Sum, chairman of the Democrats. His party exceeded expectations even though the races ostensibly were about local issues such as sanitation rather than loftier ideals like the universal suffrage being pushed by the Democrats.
The record turnout by more than 1 million voters was a sharp blow to the DAB, which has been allied with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and ended up paying a heavy price.
Party Chairman Jasper Tsang responded by offering his resignation over "the worst defeat we have suffered" since the DAB was founded 11 years ago. The party said it had not decided whether to accept it.
The July 1 rally against a proposed anti-subversion bill that many here called a threat to civil liberties was a turning point in Hong Kong politics. It forced Tung to shelve the bill in his first big retreat since he took office when Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Tung's opponents began clamoring loudly for full democracy in a climate further charged by a weak economy.
The DAB's poor showing was seen as a backlash against Tung that raised the stakes for legislative elections next year - with pro-democracy politicians hoping to gain control the legislature or at least to get enough seats to make life difficult for the government.
In the election next September, voters will choose half of the legislature's 60 seats - up from the 24 they selected in 2000 elections. Special interest groups and a committee of civic leaders pick the rest and would likely select a few pro-democracy lawmakers.
The DAB said it maintained its core of support but was overcome by a wave of newly registered voters who sided with the Democrats.
DAB Vice Chairman Ip Kwok-him was knocked out by a pro-democracy candidate, lawmaker Cyd Ho, by just 64 votes. Other DAB figures were beaten soundly.
Ho called her victory a win for ordinary people, who have no say in picking Hong Kong's leader and who overwhelmingly backed pro-democracy candidates in 2000.
Opposition politicians have long accused Tung of being slow in moving toward full democracy. Under the mini-constitution negotiated for Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, full democracy is set out as a goal although no timetable is specified.
Political scientist Ma Ngok said the DAB did worse than feared and the Democrats better than expected, raising the possibility that pro-government forces could lose control of the legislature next year.
That would create a major dilemma for Tung and for Beijing, which had previously counted on the government being supported by a legislature that wouldn't rock the boat in post-handover Hong Kong.
By Dirk Beveridge