By Dennis Chong | AFP
HONG KONG, 4 September 2016
Hong Kong goes to the polls on Sunday in the biggest vote since 2014 pro-democracy rallies, with young independence activists calling for a complete break from China running for office for the first time.
They are fighting for seats in the Legislative Council, or LegCo — Hong Kong’s lawmaking body — as concerns grow that Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city in a range of areas, from politics to media and education.
Those fears were exacerbated when five Hong Kong booksellers known for salacious titles about leading Beijing politicians disappeared at the end of last year, resurfacing in detention on the mainland, triggering widespread condemnation.
The “localist” movement
That fuelled the fire of the “localist” movement, which grew out of the failure of the 2014 rallies to win concessions on political reform from Beijing, and is seeking much more distance from China.
Now some young campaigners are demanding outright independence, others the chance for Hong Kong to determine its own future in a referendum.
The more strident independence activists — slammed by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities as acting illegally by promoting the breakaway — were banned by the government from running in Sunday’s election, a move which sparked outrage over political censorship.
Victory for the handful who are standing would be a massive coup for the nascent movement, and polls predict some will win seats.
But while momentum is growing behind the activists, many still feel they are chasing an impossible cause.
Student voter Wilson Vai, 21, said he supported the pro-democracy camp — but felt independence activists were going too far.
“It is too idealistic and unrealistic,” he told AFP.
Casting his vote Sunday morning, Hong Kong’s unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying, who is seen by critics as a Beijing stooge, assured the elections were “democratic”.
“Voters will make their own choices,” he told reporters.
However, the framework of the legislature is skewed towards the establishment.
Even if localists did win seats, with their numbers still small, they would not tip the balance in a system where it is almost impossible for the anti-Beijing camp ever to gain a majority.
While 40 of the Legislative Council’s 70 members will be directly elected by the public, 30 will be selected by small voting blocs from special interest groups representing a range of businesses and social sectors. Those seats always go predominantly to pro-Beijing candidates.
What the pro-democracy camp wants to ensure is that it holds on to enough seats to block important bills, which need to be voted through by a two thirds majority.
The loss of just four seats would mean that veto power slips away, leaving a legislature where the odds are stacked even more in Beijing’s favour.
There is a risk that new young activists will draw support away from more established parties, splitting the vote and enabling pro-Beijing candidates to capitalise.
Entrenched divisions between the pro-establishment and democracy camps have led to a Legislative Council often hamstrung by filibustering and point-scoring.
In a city where poor housing and low salaries are serious concerns, many frustrated residents say it is now time to put politics aside and focus on struggling communities.
“I just hope that people can sit down and talk without going radical,” said a 72-year-old voter surnamed Yau, who added regular weekend protests have made him worried about where to take his grandchildren.
Yau said he had voted for a “peaceful” candidate.
Polls will close at 10:30 pm (0230 GMT) with results expected early Monday