Pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong were unable to win back two of the four seats stripped from them during the past two years in elections over the weekend.
Voters instead backed two pro-Beijing candidates for Legislative Council (LegCo) by-elections in one geographical and one professional constituency, after pan-democrats campaigned in the hope of a protest vote over the move.
Turnout was just 43 percent, far less than the 58 percent seen in the 2016 LegCo elections, when Democratic politicians won 29 out of 70 seats.
The result of Sunday's poll means that pro-democracy lawmakers in the former British colony will no longer wield any veto power over motions and amendments, while new rules have limited their use of filibustering in the LegCo chamber, paving the way for shelved legislation on sedition and subversion to be tabled by the government at Beijing's behest.
Political analysts had expected Edward Yiu, one of those previously disqualified over his oath of allegiance, to regain one seat, but he was narrowly beaten by Vincent Cheng of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in Kowloon West.
"I would like to apologize first of all to my supporters," Yiu told reporters, blaming his "less-than-perfect" campaign. "I take full responsibility for this result."
Pan-democratic candidate Paul Zimmerman also lost to pro-establishment candidate Tony Tse in a constituency representing architects, surveyors and related professionals.
Assistant professor Ma Ngok, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the pan-democrats had been relying on public anger over the disqualification of popularly elected lawmakers following a high-profile intervention by Beijing's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee.
"I think the pan-democrats thought that a lot of voters would be very angry about the disqualifications, and this would boost them in the elections," Ma told RFA. "But it seems that the pan-democratics have seen a huge decrease in their ability to motivate voters."
"It seems that they no longer have any special advantage when it comes to a head-to-head battle for votes between the two camps," he said.
He said factional strife within the broader pan-democratic camp meant that voters won't necessarily back a candidate within their preferred camp but not from their preferred party.
But pan-democrat candidate Gary Fan said he thought popular anger was a factor in his victory in New Territories East.
"The government's plan to rob us [of our seats] by stripping the LegCo members of their seats has succeeded," Fan said. "It is with a heavy heart that I say this: it gave an opportunity to the ... pro-establishment faction to take a seat that should have belonged to the pan-democrats in LegCo."
"We may have beaten the ... pro-establishment camp in New Territories East, but we have to review and make changes to the way we operate."
Following an election campaign marred by controversy over the disqualification of candidates by government officials for allegedly holding pro-independence views, veteran pro-democracy candidate Au Nok-hin delivered a comfortable victory in the Hong Kong Island geographic constituency, however.
Charles Mok, convenor of the pan-democratic camp in LegCo, said the biggest blow came to the loss of veto power over proposed legislation put forward by the government.
"I think this the biggest damage done was the loss of Kowloon West, which will have the biggest direct impact in terms of the veto," Mok said. "We have all seen during the past few months that there has been a change in the LegCo rules of procedure, which will mean that the pro-establishment camp will be able to do whatever it wants to do."
"I fear that over the course of the next few months, before the next by-election, we will see them use the same tactics again," he said.
The results were taken as a sign by pro-Beijing politicians that voters largely agreed with the decision to strip the LegCo members of their seats over their oaths.
"At the start of the campaign, some people were trying to make this election into a referendum about the so-called stripping of seats from LegCo members," Federation of Trade Unions vice-president Wong Kwok-kin told journalists after the results were announced.
"The question of the disqualifications remained as a topic throughout the campaign, but our victory in Kowloon West has shown that ... the public think the government was right to strip those LegCo members of their seats," Wong said.
High-level intervention from Beijing
Six pan-democratic lawmakers were stripped of their seats and ordered to pay back salaries and expenses after courts judged them to have broken Hong Kong's Oaths and Declarations Ordinance, following a controversial interpretation issued by China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee.
"Solemnity and sincerity" were qualities required retroactively by the NPC standing committee, in a move that has been criticized by the rights group Hong Kong Watch as a breach of the Sino-British treaty governing the 1997 handover to China.
The Kowloon West and New Territories East constituencies were vacated by pro-independence lawmakers Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching in November 2016, who were formally barred from taking up their seats last year following a high-level intervention from Beijing.
The pair, both members of the youth group Youngspiration, had vowed allegiance to the "Hong Kong Nation" and carried banners saying "Hong Kong is not China" during their swearing-in ceremonies, while Yau swore in her reference to China.
Sunday’s by-election came about after four pro-democracy lawmakers — Nathan Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, and Edward Yiu — were ousted in July after a court ruling that voided their oaths of office for reasons including speaking too slowly, inserting extra words, and using a tone deemed disrespectful to China.
The Hong Kong Island constituency seat was vacated by Law, a former student leader of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement and member of the Demosisto party, which espouses "self-determination" for Hong Kong.
Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, and Edward Yiu were also disqualified after a court found that their oaths were invalid because they spoke too slowly, inserted extra words, or used a "disrespectful" tone.
Au was selected to run in Hong Kong Island after the government rejected Law's Demosisto colleague Agnes Chow as a candidate.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.