HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kongers voted Sunday in the specially administered Chinese city’s most crucial election since the handover from Britain in 1997, the outcome of which could pave the way for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing’s control of the city.
The vote for Legislative Council lawmakers is set to test the unity of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp as a new generation of radical activists, who emerged in the wake of 2014 pro-democracy street protests, joined the race.
They’re hoping to ride a rising tide of anti-China sentiment as they challenge formidably resourced pro-Beijing rivals for seats. Many of the newcomers back the previously unthinkable idea of independence for Hong Kong, which has added to divisions with the broader pro-democracy movement and overshadowed the election. Last month, officials disqualified six pro-independence candidates in an attempt to tamp down the debate, though other candidates with similar views made the cut.
Hong Kongers feel they have few other negotiating tactics left in their battle for genuine democracy as Beijing takes an increasingly hard-line stance.
“It’s bleak, but I think if China doesn’t leave us to do what we want, I think the only way is to fight for independence,” said Aron Yuen, a 34-year-old college lecturer, as he stood in line of about 100 other people to cast their ballots.
“You can’t negotiate with somebody who doesn’t keep their promise,” said Yuen. He planned to vote for the 23-year-old Nathan Law who, along with teen activist Joshua Wong, played a key role leading the 2014 protests. Their party, Demosisto, advocates a referendum on “self-determination” of Hong Kong’s future.
At stake is the power to keep the city’s widely unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, and his government in check. “Pan-democrat” lawmakers currently control 27 of 70 seats, compared with 43 held by lawmakers friendly to Beijing. The democrats are fighting to keep control of at least a third of the seats, which gives them veto power to block government attempts to enact unpopular legislation, such as Beijing’s controversial election revamp that triggered the 2014 street protests.
The risk is that the pro-democracy vote will be split, allowing pro-Beijing candidates to take more seats and removing a major hurdle for the government’s proposals, which in turn could lead to a new round of political confrontations.
A small group of protesters demanded Leung step down outside a polling station where he cast his vote.
“Our election is a democratic election,” Leung told reporters.
“The democracy in the election is reflected by the free choice of voters, they do not need to be told who to vote,” he said, when asked his thoughts on how last-minute decisions by seven mostly pro-democracy candidates to suspend their campaigns in a bid to consolidate votes for those with more support would affect results.
Hong Kong has been the scene of increasingly bitter political turmoil since the last legislative election in 2012. The growing calls for independence highlight frustration among residents, especially among young people, who are chafing under Beijing’s tightening hold. A spate of incidents, including the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who later resurfaced in mainland Chinese detention, has aroused fears that Beijing is reneging on its promise of wide autonomy for Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” framework.
Seven hours after polls opened, about 23 percent of 3.8 million registered voters turned out, the government said.
Voters are choosing lawmakers to fill 35 seats in geographic constituencies. There are 84 lists of candidates, so the results will be hard to predict. Another 30 seats are taken by members representing business and trade groups such as accounting, finance, medicine and fisheries. Five more “super seats” are chosen by voters citywide.
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