HONG KONG • Hong Kong went to the polls yesterday for the first time since huge pro-democracy protests crippled parts of the Chinese-controlled city, in the first real test of public sentiment.
More than 900 candidates are competing for 431 seats in 18 district councils, where pro-Beijing parties currently hold a majority, at a time when people are divided over the pace of political reform. The results will provide insight into how a Legislative Council election due next year and a controversial leadership poll in 2017 could pan out.
The 79-day demonstrations last year, when activists streamed onto highways to demand full democracy for the former British colony, became the biggest political challenge to Beijing's Communist Party leaders in years. The protests failed to persuade China to allow a fully democratic vote in 2017. Beijing says city voters have to choose from a list of candidates it has approved.
But the unrest triggered what many in the financial centre see as a political awakening, which has included a lively debate over how much control China's central government should have.
Some voters said yesterday the democracy movement had motivated them to cast their ballot.
After last year's umbrella revolution I feel that, however insignificant our vote might be, it's our only legitimate way to tell the people... up north what we are thinking.
VOTER KRIS FONG, 28, referring to the authorities in Beijing
"It's the little power we have," said 28-year-old administrator Kris Fong, voting in the northern district of Yuen Long.
Ms Fong said she had chosen a pro-democracy candidate because she felt the city was being "manipulated" by Beijing. She had missed previous elections but said voting this year was more important.
"After last year's umbrella revolution I feel that, however insignificant our vote might be, it's our only legitimate way to tell the people... up north what we are thinking," she said, referring to powers in Beijing.
Student leader Joshua Wong, 19, the teenage face of the democracy movement, was eligible to vote for the first time. "I finally cast the first vote of my life," he said in a Tweet. "Feeling exhilarated."
Just over 3.1 million residents are registered, with a 30 per cent turnout by early evening. Polls closed at 10.30pm and results are expected early this morning.
Analysts say it is unlikely the democrats will significantly increase their seats, outgunned by the well- funded and better organised pro- government camp.
Young activists say making a stand is an important first step for the next generation of antagonists, even if they lose.
"The younger democrats are testing their strength," Professor Sonny Lo of the Hong Kong Institute of Education told Agence France- Presse.
"All eyes are on whether the umbrella activists can win at least a few seats... their performance will point to a real generational change," Prof Lo said.
District councillors command little power, acting more in an advisory role in which they can push forward policies for the government to consider.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE