HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp fears the movement could be dealt a further setback when voters go the polls Sunday (March 11). The expected loss of seats in the territory's legislature, democracy activists say, is the result of a system increasingly controlled by Beijing and stacked against them.
After months of street protests in 2014 failed to make Hong Kong's elections more open, the protest leaders decided to run for office themselves. Several won seats in the Legislative Council in 2016, only to be removed after they modified their oaths of office.
Now, four of those six vacated seats are up for election Sunday. At least one is expected to go to the pro-establishment camp, as beleaguered advocates for more direct democracy in Hong Kong are struggling in what they describe as a rigged system.
One democratic candidate was equivocal about the value of the seat he was pursuing, saying he felt that the local legislature was increasingly powerless.
"Being in the Legislative Council is quite limited," said Au Nok-hin, who is running for a seat representing Hong Kong Island. "Whatever policy changes, or whatever policy actions, right now are under strong power from Beijing."
Political analysts have called this campaign one of the quietest on record, with low turnout for rallies and no forum on Hong Kong's biggest free-to-air television network, TVB.
"The election atmosphere is not hot," said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "So the democrats worry if they can mobilise all their voters." Voters directly elect half the members of Hong Kong's legislature. The other half is picked by so-called functional constituencies, generally composed of members of a professional sector.
While the pro-democratic camp usually fares better than establishment candidates in elections for geographic constituencies, they face some disadvantages. Pro-Beijing parties are better funded and more organised and dominate the functional constituencies.
And the democratic camp has faced a series of bruising court battles.
Under the Basic Law - the mini-constitution that has governed Hong Kong since Britain returned it to China in 1997 - the territory is granted a significant degree of autonomy. Hong Kong maintains its own courts, government and economic system under the policy of "one country, two systems". That guarantee expires in 2047. What comes next is already a source of deep concern in Hong Kong, and many residents fear that Beijing is even now quietly chipping away at the Basic Law.
The Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 fueled the "localist" movement, which wants Hong Kong to pursue greater autonomy or even independence from China.
Hong Kong's High Court disqualified six pro-democracy candidates who won seats in the Legislative Council in 2016 after they inserted anti-China snubs or otherwise modified their oaths of office. Beijing weighed in, saying the Basic Law required officeholders to conduct their swearing-in ceremonies "sincerely and solemnly". With the six democracy lawmakers removed, the pro-establishment camp was able to push through new rules in December that limited filibustering tactics frequently used by the opposition.
At least three candidates were barred from running this year by election officials. One of the pro-democratic camp's leading prospects, Agnes Chow, was disqualified over her party's stance that Hong Kong's future after 2047 should be decided by referendum.
Hong Kong Watch, a London-based rights group, said the disqualifications meant the by-election was "tainted by government-sanctioned political screening" that "undermines Hong Kong's rule of law and its reputation as a free and open city". It called on the government to cancel the election and reinstate the disqualified lawmakers.
Au, who stood in as the pro-democratic candidate after Chow was barred, said his late start had put him at a disadvantage. Political analysts said the Hong Kong Island contest is likely to be the most closely fought of this by-election.
Both Au and his establishment rival, Judy Chan, are district council members who have campaigned on promises to uphold the rule of law, a deeply held value in Hong Kong. But they have very different interpretations of what that means. For Au, it means resisting the Chinese Communist Party's influence over Hong Kong's political and legal systems.
Chan argues that those resistance efforts themselves, including street demonstrations and filibustering by the pro-democracy camp in the legislature, undermine rule of law. During a televised debate, she held up a photo of Au burning a copy of the Basic Law at a protest, saying it brought into question whether he could uphold the charter.
Chan's campaign said she was not available for an interview during the week before the election.
Au has responded to Chan's criticism by saying his protest was meant to challenge Beijing's interpretation of the law that led to the lawmakers' disqualification.
One seat that the establishment camp seems likely to win is the functional constituency representing the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape industries. That seat, long considered safe for pro-establishment candidates, was won two years ago by a member of the pro-democracy camp, Edward Yiu, when two other candidates split the establishment vote.
Yiu, however, was disqualified from office after adding the words "protect the justice system in Hong Kong, fight for true democracy, and serve Hong Kong for its sustainable development" when he was sworn in.
The democracy candidate seeking to replace Yiu is Paul Zimmerman, a Dutch-born district council member. Zimmerman saw his slim chances further undermined when it was revealed that his home included illegal structures.
Yiu is again seeking office and pursuing a seat in the Kowloon West constituency. The pro-democracy camp has always won more seats there, and in 2016 their candidates won 58 per cent of the vote compared with 37 per cent for the pro-Beijing establishment.
If the democracy candidates were to lose there, it would represent a serious blow to their movement, analysts said.
"The by-election demonstrates how much political capacity the pan-democratic camp still has," said Mathew Wong, a political-science professor at the University of Hong Kong. "If they cannot win at least three seats back, it shows that the people are indifferent and do not feel strongly about the difficulties faced by the camp."