HONG KONG – Hong Kongers head to the polls Sunday to choose candidates for the semiautonomous city's legislature, in the first major election since 2014's pro-democracy street protests. That movement drew world attention to the former British colony's struggle over stunted democratic development under Chinese rule and paved the way for a burgeoning independence movement that's complicating the upcoming vote. Here's a look at the issues:
Candidates from a new wave of activist groups that emerged in the wake of the student-led "Umbrella" or "Occupy" movement are challenging established pro-Beijing and "pan-democrat" parties for seats in the Legislative Council, or Legco. With the nonviolent 2014 protests failing to yield any concessions from Beijing over its plan to restrict elections for the city's top leader, many activists support more confrontational tactics and radical action. In all, 214 candidates are running for 35 seats.
BALANCE OF POWER:
Pro-democracy candidates will compete with each other and with a narrower range of candidates from well-funded pro-Beijing parties. The voting results, expected Monday, will reflect to some extent the degree of anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, as authorities take an increasingly hard line. But they'll also be colored by the pro-Beijing side's ability to muster resources, and by the pro-democracy camp's disorganization. The main thing to watch for will be whether pro-democracy parties hold on to at least one third of council seats, enough to block legislation. They currently hold 27 of 70 seats.
A key theme of this year's vote is a growing call for independence from China, which took control of the city from Britain in 1997. Such talk was once considered unthinkable but has become commonplace as residents fret over Beijing's tightening grip. A university poll in July of about 1,000 people found 17.4 percent supported independence, though only 4 percent thought it possible. This summer, election officials disqualified six candidates for pro-independence views and required candidates to sign a pledge that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. On Tuesday the Hong Kong government threatened it would take unspecified action against candidates advocating independence, though it did not name any.
Not all the newcomers advocate independence. Some want Hong Kong-focused localism and others desire full autonomy. Rookie candidate Nathan Law's Demosisto party proposes a referendum on "self-determination" for Hong Kong. The party was founded in April by Law, 23, and 19-year-old activist Joshua Wong, both of whom were sentenced to community service last month for joining a unlawful assembly that sparked the 2014 protests.
Council elections are held every four years. Half of the 70 seats are not up for citywide election; they are tied to various business and trade groups, such as finance, fishing and medicine, and people in those sectors will decide who fills them. People with Communist Party ties dominated many of these "functional constituencies," and pro-democracy groups want the special-interest seats eliminated. They also want direct elections for Hong Kong's top leader, currently hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites. China's government insists on screening out unfriendly candidates.