The start of Hong Kong's first post-colonial election was met with widespread apathy and confusion this week, prompting pro-democracy politicians to dismiss the exercise as a farce.

Less than a quarter of those eligible to vote turned out on Thursday to cast ballots for an 800-member electoral committee. The committee will elect 10 members to a 60-seat legislature in the first election under Chinese rule on May 24."The government is entirely to blame," said pro-democracy politician Martin Lee. "First of all for coming out with such farcical arrangements and secondly for not having properly explained to the people what these complicated rules mean."

Only 23 percent of the eligible voters, drawn from select professional groups such as lawyers and accountants, turned out to cast ballots on Thursday.

The selection of the electoral committee was the first step toward the May 24 election, which will pit pro-democracy parties against pro-Beijing parties for the first time since Britain ceded this former colony to China last July.

Wary of popular politics, the new China-backed voting system will allow only 20 seats to be directly elected. A further 30 seats will be elected by blocs of professional or special interest groups in the May 24 election.

Former shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, picked by Beijing to run Hong Kong after the July handover, saluted the exercise as open, fair and a new phase in preparing for the election.