Voters turned out in force Sunday for Hong Kong'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 will test the unity of Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, with a new generation of radical activists joining the race after emerging in the wake of 2014 pro-democracy street protests.
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," Aron Yuen, a 34-year-old college lecturer, said as he stood in line with about 100 other people to cast their ballots. "You can't negotiate with somebody who doesn't keep their promise."
Yuen planned to vote for 23-year-old Nathan Law, who, along with teen activist Joshua Wong, helped lead the 2014 protests. Their party, Demosisto, advocates a referendum on "self-determination" of Hong Kong's future.
Voters were choosing from among 84 lists of candidates to fill 35 seats in a complex system of geographic constituencies that makes results, expected Monday, hard to predict.
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, including a renewed attempt to enact 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.
Turnout appeared to be higher than average, with long lines of people still waiting to cast ballots at some polling stations by the time voting was supposed to end. Some 52.6 percent of nearly 3.8 million registered voters had turned out an hour before polls closed, matching the total turnout for the previous election four years ago. Turnout in the 2008 election was 45.2 percent, according to the government's website.
Earlier Sunday, 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 (for)," he said when asked his thoughts on how results would be affected after seven candidates with low support, most of them pro-democracy, suspended their campaigns at the last minute in a bid to consolidate votes for others.
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 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 detention in mainland China, has aroused fears that Beijing is reneging on its promise of wide autonomy for Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" framework.