HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp is seeking to regain lost turf in crucial legislative by-elections on Sunday (March 11) that it hopes will draw protest votes against perceived political screening and creeping control from Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
The opposition in the former British colony has lost the power to block most bills in the Legislative Council since six lawmakers, elected by more than 180,000 votes in 2016, were ousted, and activists fear the council will become a rubber-stamp parliament, like the National People's Congress in Beijing, if the seats are not recaptured.
Four of the ejected lawmakers were pro-democracy, two pro-independence, a red line for Beijing.
Fifteen candidates are running for four of those seats with the results difficult to predict - the streets are mostly quiet, there are few election banners, even fewer televised debates and no comprehensive popularity polls.
"The mood is subdued... Many people feel helpless and think things can't be changed and the central government will eventually take control over Hong Kong," said 20-year-old student Peter Lee who attended a pro-democracy rally of a few hundred people.
"But that's why we need to come out now to demand changes, before it's too late."
His preferred candidate, student activist Agnes Chow, 21, has already been disqualified because she supports Hong Kong's right to self-determination, which China sees as a front for outright independence.
Chow and her party, Demosisto, say they are not advocating independence but instead demanding a referendum on Hong Kong's future, which would include independence, among other options.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including limited democracy.
But massive street protests in 2014 failed to ensure universal suffrage, with Beijing vetting candidates for the territory's leader chosen by a small electoral group stacked with pro-Beijing elite.
STRATEGY TO DIMINISH AUTONOMY
While city-wide elections that fill up half the 70-seat legislature once every four years are seen as the most open, international confidence in Hong Kong's electoral freedom was shaken after candidates and elected lawmakers were ousted.
The European Union in January criticised a government decision to bar Chow from running, while former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who represented London in meetings with Beijing in the two years leading up to the 1997 handover, called the disqualifications "unacceptable".
"They reinforce the concern, that has already been expressed, that there may be a strategy to diminish Hong Kong's autonomy in a step by step process over the years," he wrote in a foreword to a report published by British non-government organisation Hong Kong Watch on Thursday.
Among the 15 candidates is ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu, a 53-year-old surveyor and former professor who emerged as an unlikely politician after the 2014 protests.
After working as a legislator for nearly a year, last July a Hong Kong court, citing a Beijing interpretation, ruled Yiu's oath of office invalid because he had added a few phrases, including a vow to fight for universal suffrage.
"This election is a vote of no confidence against the disqualifications and against authoritarianism," Yiu said.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp emerged victorious in the 2016 city-wide poll that saw a record turnout sending a crop of new young activists and protest leaders into the legislature.
But the city's then chief executive won lawsuits against the six over the validity of their oaths, some laden with profanities and demands for independence, stripping them of their seats.
Two more by-elections are expected to be held after an appeal filed by two of the six legislators is over.
At the height of the oath-taking saga, Beijing's parliament issued a pre-emptive legal interpretation over how Hong Kong oaths should be taken while the case was heard in court, sparking the ire of 2,000 lawyers protesting against its perceived interference over the city's vaunted rule of law.
But the pro-establishment camp said it was the lawmakers'own fault for not taking their oaths solemnly and challenging Beijing's red line.