Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang on Sunday won five more years as chief executive in an election the loser called "rigged", but which followed an unprecedented campaign that tested the limits of political openness in China.
Tsang's win was expected due to his robust support from the Chinese leadership -- the determining factor when the 795-member electoral committee, stacked in Beijing's favor, voted.
Of 772 valid votes cast in the first contested election since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997, Tsang took 649 and his opponent, Alan Leong, trailed with 123.
Hong Kong's seven million people had no direct say.
Upon winning, a visibly moved Tsang took several deep bows while supporters clapped. Electors from the democratic camp, meanwhile, chanted for universal suffrage in the next chief executive elections in 2012, highlighting a hot-button issue that is sure to dog Tsang in coming years.
The process "laid out a solid foundation for moving toward universal suffrage", said Tsang, who has vowed to produce a plan by 2012 for the introduction of democracy but has stopped short of saying it would be implemented by then. "In a modest way, we have made history."
China's central liaison office in Hong Kong, its foreign ministry and the People's Liberation Army garrison, congratulated Tsang and pledged support, Xinhua news agency said.
Leong was the first opposition candidate on a pro-democracy ticket to qualify for a leadership election since the handover in 1997, and two televised debates between him and Tsang broke new ground in Hong Kong politics.
Upon his arrival at the polling venue, Leong said the election was "rigged" but added that his candidacy had changed the political landscape permanently, according to a recording of him speaking to the press played on a local radio station.
"There is no turning back from here," he said later, promising to continue his push for universal suffrage in 2012. "Hong Kong people are ready for democracy yesterday."
Several dozen democracy supporters staged a protest outside the convention center where the electors were voting, waving banners and shouting as they were held back by a line of police. To enter the voting hall, electors had to run a gauntlet of protesters shouting at them to cast a blank ballot.
A Flustered Beijing?
Analysts say Leong's dogged election challenge and strong performances in the TV debates flustered some in Beijing, which has kept a tight grip on political developments in the territory since Chinese rule was restored 10 years ago, despite allowing a high degree of autonomy in other policy areas.
In the weeks before the election, Chinese officials warned Hong Kong against meddling in politics and reminded the territory that the national parliament, a rubber stamp for the ruling Communist Party, has the final say in political reform.
In 2004, it made a precedent-setting ruling to bar universal suffrage in Hong Kong for the immediate future, although it is recognized as a goal in the territory's mini-constitution.
"I very much believe we can achieve universal suffrage on the one hand and, on the other hand, preserve Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability," said Tsang, who plans to send a policy paper on universal suffrage to the legislature in coming months.
"This will be the coming battle," said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science and a member of the election committee who voted for Leong.
Tsang's road to victory this time stood in contrast to his 2005 win after predecessor Tung Chee Hwa resigned, citing health reasons. That year, the veteran civil servant was backed by 710 members of the electoral panel, clinching an automatic victory as the only official candidate to make the ballot.