Four arrests as Macau police halt unofficial democracy poll

HONG KONG (AFP) - Four people were arrested as police shut down voting facilities in Macau after activists ignored strong objections from Beijing and held an unofficial referendum on electoral reform, the event organiser said.

Residents of the Chinese gambling hub were told they could vote at several locations across the territory, as well as online, but poll organiser Jason Chao told AFP that those attempting to take part in person were stopped by police, who confiscated the tablet computers people used to declare their vote.

He said four activists were arrested by police after polling began in the morning, but could not specify on what grounds.

"The authorities are using all means to disrupt our activity," Mr Chao told AFP. "I can't imagine why the government has to clamp down on such a peaceful event," he said.

The former Portuguese colony returned to Chinese rule in 1999, but has a separate legal system from the mainland. Like Hong Kong, Macau's leader is known as its chief executive and is chosen by a pro-Beijing electoral committee.

The referendum was scheduled to run for a week ending on Aug 30, just ahead of the naming of the enclave's new leader on Aug 31 by the 400-member committee.

The poll was designed by activists to garner public support for reforms in the city of 550,000, but it is not clear if it will be able to continue or if authorities will also block the online voting system.

Macau police did not immediately confirm the arrests or shutdown.

"Our goal is to fight for a democratic electoral system and the first stage is to get the citizens informed of the election system," Mr Chao told AFP last month.

"We hope that the referendum will be able to serve as a foundation for our fight for democracy in the future," he said then.

As of 2pm, more than 1,300 people had voted, according to the event's official website.

Questions include whether there should be universal suffrage for the 2019 chief executive elections and how confident voters are in the upcoming election's sole candidate Fernando Chui, who has been in the position since 2009.

China has hit back at the referendum, with a statement from Beijing's liaison office in the city saying that the enclave had "no authority" to hold the poll.

Activists hope the referendum turnout will exceed 10,000.

In May around 20,000 people marched against a bill to allow government ministers generous retirement packages, with many youngsters taking part hoping for greater accountability from their own government.

Hong Kong also held an informal poll on democratic reform in June which saw more than 790,000 people vote over 10 days on how the city's next leader should be chosen.

The winning proposal would allow the public or democratically elected lawmaker to nominate candidates.

Beijing slammed the vote as "illegal and invalid".

China has promised to let residents of the former British colony elect the chief executive in 2017, but has ruled out giving voters a say in selecting candidates, prompting fears that only those sympathetic to Beijing will be allowed to stand.

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