Hong Kong residents voted on Sunday in record numbers for a bitterly contested legislative election, with a push for independence among a disaffected younger generation of candidates and voters stoking tension with China’s government.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition is hoping to maintain a one-third veto bloc in the 70-seat legislative council in the face of better mobilised and funded pro-Beijing and pro-establishment rivals.
Voters flocked to cast ballots in record numbers with some having to wait several hours after the close of polling to cast ballots at a few particularly congested polling stations.
“Hong Kong is really chaotic now. I want to do something to help,” said 28-year-old Maicy Leung, who was in a snaking queue of several hundred. “It’s to help the next generation and to help myself.”
The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement that promised to maintain the global financial hub’s freedoms and separate laws for at least 50 years, but gave ultimate control to Beijing.
The Electoral Affairs Commission said 58 percent of the city’s 3.8 million eligible voters had cast ballots, up from 53 percent in 2012 and the highest turnout for any legislative election since 1997.
The turnout reflected the city’s heightened political discontent and urgent appeals by candidates, some from new radical groups, jostling for extra votes in a highly competitive poll.
Much attention focused on a group of about 20 pro-democracy “localists” pushing a more radical, anti-China agenda who could become a fledgling new force in the legislature.
Despite the disqualification of six pro-democracy election candidates from the election in July on the grounds that they supported independence, preliminary results showed several localists and young democrats likely winning seats.
Full results are not expected till later on Monday.
“The city’s political spectrum has been stretched wider,” said Wong Yuk-man, the head of Civic Passion, a radical pro-democracy group, who was vying for a seat.
“It shows Hong Kong people are trying to get away from China, and from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Hong Kong’s opposition now controls 27 of the legislature’s 70 seats, giving it a veto bloc over funding and various legislative bills including those it sees as eroding freedoms.
Many residents see the 79 days of student-led “Umbrella Revolution” protests in 2014 as a turning point in the city’s politics even though Beijing gave no ground.
Since then, many disaffected youngsters have decried what they see as increasing Beijing interference to stifle dissent and civil liberties, leading to a radicalisation of the political scene and occasional violent protests and a riot.
The stakes for Beijing are particularly high this weekend as G20 leaders gather in the eastern city of Hangzhou for a summit.