By Venus Wu and James Pomfret
Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp failed on Monday to regain some veto power in the city's legislature in a pivotal by-election, struggling to draw what they hoped would be protest votes against creeping control from Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
The democrats won only two of four seats up for grabs, with the opposition now left one seat short from having the power to block most bills in the 70-seat legislative chamber.
The by-election marked the first time the democratic camp has lost its long standing veto power via the ballot box, raising fresh questions over the future of the struggle for democracy and autonomy in the freest city in greater China.
"The breakthrough in this by-election is a shot of confidence for our supporters and for people who hope Hong Kong can move forward and stop wasting energy with in-fighting," said Starry Lee, the leader of the city's largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).
The polls were triggered when six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted from public office over invalid oaths of office in a move that critics said was politically motivated - a move that cost them their veto power. The two remaining seats have yet to be filled.
Sunday's polls coincided with the historic vote in China's parliament that removed president Xi Jinping's term limits, giving him the right to stay in office indefinitely.
During a visit to the city last July, Xi warned Beijing wouldn't tolerate any challenge to its authority.
After more than a century of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
Over the past two decades however, tensions have simmered and occasionally boiled over with activists pushing in vain for full democracy amidst opposition from Beijing.
While some democrats had made appeals for votes to redress the injustice of the disqualifications and to safeguard the city's autonomy, they struggled to overturn what some saw as voter malaise.
"The pan-democrats have paid a huge price due to the recent political storms these few years," said Au Nok-hin, one of the democrat winners.
A turnout of 43 percent, far less than the 58 percent for full legislative council polls two years ago, suggested votes could have become fatigued with the democrats struggle.
"For the whole democratic camp it's a political defeat," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"It gives people the impression that even if the government uses what people regard as problematic or even illegal means to strip lawmakers of their seats, or to disenfranchise the public, the public isn't reacting very strongly."
The democrats' failure to regain veto power over most bills could effectively render the Hong Kong legislature a rubber-stamp parliament not unlike Beijing's National People's Congress.
The opposition, however, still has a chance to claw back that veto power when the by-elections are held for the remaining two seats vacated by the disqualifications - though no date for those contests has been set.
"The space for expression is getting narrower for Hong Kong," said voter Candy Chan, a 24-year-old fashion designer. "While I haven't completely lost hope, my feeling is things will gradually get worse."
(Additional reporting by Alexis Tan, Tina Ge, Carmel Yang, Wyman Ma, Pak Yiu; Editing by Greg Torode & Simon Cameron-Moore)