Young Hong Kong independence activists calling for a complete break from China stood for the first time Sunday in city-wide legislative elections, the biggest polls since mass pro-democracy protests in 2014.
They were fighting for seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo) as concerns grow that Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city.
Although polls were supposed to close at 10:30pm there were still queues at some stations after the deadline, with predictions of a record turnout.
Before the vote, some polls forecast victories for the young independence activists, but that could split the vote for the pro-democracy camp – and end up playing into the hands of pro-Beijing parties.
Most established pro-democracy politicians do not support the notion of independence and may lose seats to voters who now favour more radical new groups.
If the democrats lose just four seats overall, they will forfeit the one-third voting bloc they need to veto bills, stacking the already skewed legislature even more in favour of Beijing.
Fears that Hong Kong’s freedoms are disappearing were fanned after five city booksellers known for salacious titles about Beijing politicians disappeared, resurfacing in detention on the mainland.
That fuelled the fire of the “localist” movement, which is seeking distance from China after the failure of the 2014 rallies to win political reform.
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 — were banned by the government from running in Sunday’s election, a move that sparked anger.
Political analyst Joseph Cheng says he expects new faces in the legislature.
“This election is very much characterised by an inter-generational change of politicians and political leaders,” he told AFP.
One 30-year-old voter who gave her name as Sandy said she favoured independence.
“This is a very critical time… we are here to ensure a voice can still be heard,” she said.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under an “one country, two systems” agreement intended to protect its freedoms and partial autonomy for 50 years. However, many young campaigners believe that deal has failed.
But while victory for anti-China activists would be a major coup, many still feel they are chasing an impossible cause.
Student voter Wilson Vai, 21, said he supported the pro-democracy camp but felt that calling for independence was going too far.
“It is too idealistic and unrealistic,” he told AFP.
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 are directly elected by the public, 30 are selected by small voting blocs from special interest groups representing a range of businesses and social sectors. Those seats go predominantly to pro-Beijing candidates.
Hong Kong’s unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying, who is seen by critics as a Beijing stooge, described the elections as “democratic” as he cast his vote.
Several political opponents protested outside the polling station, with one throwing a tuna sandwich towards Leung — saying it symbolised the fact that elderly people cannot afford to eat breakfast in a city where the wealth gap is widening.
Entrenched divisions have led to a Legislative Council often hamstrung by filibustering and point-scoring.
With soaring flat prices and low salaries causing serious concern, many frustrated residents say it is 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.
There was anger among some at the polls who said there had been irregularities, including having their names crossed off lists when they hadn’t voted, local media reported.
The count begins soon after polls close and results are expected early Monday.
Almost two million people — 52.6 percent of the electorate — had voted by 9:30 pm.