HONG KONG – Hong Kong began voting Sunday in a legislative election that will test the appeal of a new wave of anti-China activists and set the stage for future political fights over Beijing’s control over the city.
The Legislative Council election is the first since police clashes with student protesters two years ago thrust the former British colony’s struggle for greater democracy into the global spotlight. The scuffles exposed rifts in Hong Kong’s political camps, with some prodemocracy advocates demanding a sharper break with China and other more establishment politicians calling for the ouster of the city’s Beijing-backed leader.
The results, expected Monday, will impact Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s ability to implement his agenda in the Asian financial hub and get re-elected in March. Also at stake is the opposition’s capacity to block legislation with more than a third of the chamber’s 70 seats, a key barrier to controversial bills like the proposed election overhaul that sparked the mass “Occupy” rallies in 2014.
“You may be disappointed by the fact that Hong Kong, the city we love, has not been making more progress,” said Carrie Lam, the city’s chief secretary, after casting her vote Sunday morning. “But it is exactly for this reason that I urge you to vote because indifference will not lead us anywhere.”
Alongside candidate banners and flags that have lined city streets in recent weeks, Hong Kong’s government has advertised on billboards and on Google’s YouTube home page, with the slogan “Vote for Your Choice.” More than 500 voting stations were open in schools, government buildings and community centers across the city until 10:30 p.m. Sunday, for the 3.78 million people registered to cast their ballots.
About 31 percent of those eligible in the geographical districts had turned out by 4:30 p.m. local time, the government said in an emailed statement.
Since the last legislative election in 2012, Hong Kong has seen a series of political clashes over whether China is preserving the “high degree of autonomy” it promised before regaining sovereignty almost two decades ago.
The disappearance last year of five local men who sold books critical of the ruling Communist Party drew international protests after they were revealed to be in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.
Underlying the election campaign are worries about rising competition from mainland Chinese workers, sky-high housing costs and a slowing economy. Growth in 2016 is forecast to slow to a seven-year low of 1.2 percent, according to a Bloomberg survey.
A lack of reliable polling and a system in which lists of candidates vie for multiple seats in each district makes predicting the outcome difficult. Thirty-five seats represent geographical districts, while 30 represent various professions, industries and special-interest groups such as medicine, finance and agriculture. Five more “super seats” are selected by citywide vote.
Legislators under the “pan-democratic” umbrella currently hold 27 seats, compared with 43 in the pro-establishment group. That gives the opposition the power to slow legislation with filibusters and block changes to the city’s charter, which require support from two-thirds of the chamber.
That power held by the opposition “is the only thing preventing the government from reintroducing the political reform package against the will of Hong Kong people,” said Chung Kim-wah, a political scientist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “It is important for the opposition to hold that majority if LegCo is to remain a balance to the executive power,” he said, referring to the legislature.
Five pan-democratic candidates said they were pulling out of the election late Saturday, urging their supporters to vote for others under the pan-democratic group, the South China Morning Post reported.
The announcements were seen as a last-minute effort to unite the bloc in the face of fierce competition from the other side, according to the Post.
The professional seats are dominated by Beijing loyalists, damping the fractious prodemocracy camp’s hope of winning a majority for the first time since the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
Maintaining unity has become even more challenging as more-radical parties push for self-determination or even independence from China.
The government has drawn a red line on advocacy of independence, barring six candidates from running and requiring hopefuls to sign a form acknowledging that the city is an inalienable part of China.
Still, some so-called “localists” have made the cut. Success in Sunday’s vote could give them a greater platform to challenge China.
Holding those views risked “grave consequences,” said Zou Pingxue, director of Hong Kong and Macau Basic Law Research Center at Shenzhen University. “The Hong Kong government took effective measures to deal with it, and I think this is the right thing to do.”
Leung has become the target of a cross-party campaign to urge Beijing to not support him for another five-year term as Hong Kong’s leader.
Leung, who refused to speak with students during the 79-day Occupy protest, is blamed for failing to calm political divides in the city. He hasn’t said if he wants to stay on.
Under current rules, the chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member committee of political insiders dominated by China loyalists, and subject to approval by the central government in Beijing.
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