HONG KONG • Hong Kong's democratic opposition is aiming to win back a crucial legislative council seat in an election that will restore some of its veto power at a time when the China-ruled city's freedoms are under strain.
The city's opposition Democrats squandered a chance in March to regain their veto power, garnering only two of four seats in a by-election and leaving them one seat short of blocking most Bills in the 70-seat chamber, now largely controlled by pro-Beijing allies.
After 156 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula, guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
While the Democrats have enjoyed strong public backing in the past from a public aggrieved by China's creeping control of the Asian financial hub, they have struggled against a far larger and better funded pro-Beijing camp and unprecedented moves by the authorities to curb electoral freedoms.
A pro-independence political party was banned this year, while several promising democracy activists were barred from contesting various polls after being deemed ideologically unsuitable for public office.
Yesterday's by-election and the one in March were triggered when six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted over invalid oaths of office.
Critics said the move was politically motivated, raising fresh questions over Hong Kong's reputation as a relative haven for freedoms not allowed anywhere in mainland China.
A higher turnout is expected to help the Democrats, but by late afternoon, only around a quarter of the 490,000 eligible voters had cast a ballot.
"This election is crucial... We can further resist the erosion of our power base by the (Chinese) Communist Party. I think most people don't want Hong Kong to become another Chinese city," said Mr Lee Cheuk Yan, a veteran former pro-democracy lawmaker and the main candidate for the democratic camp.
Mr Lee's main rival will be the pro-establishment Ms Rebecca Chan Hoi Uan, a former television journalist with broadcaster TVB.
The poll comes at a time of increasing international concern towards a perceived deterioration in Hong Kong civil liberties.
Nine activists, including lawmakers and university professors, are now facing public nuisance charges stemming from the massive pro-democracy "Occupy Central" protests in 2014.
A senior editor for the Financial Times, Mr Victor Mallet, was also effectively expelled from the city in recent months, soon after he helped host a speech by an independence activist at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club.