Hong Kong takes to polls first time since protests

  • 23/11/2015
Electoral officers empty ballot box at polling station in Hong Kong (Reuters)
Electoral officers empty ballot box at polling station in Hong Kong (Reuters)

By Dennis Chong

Hong Kong has gone to the polls for the first time since huge pro-democracy protests gripped the city, in a key test of public sentiment.

The spotlight is on Sunday's district elections to gauge whether support for the democracy movement can translate into votes and bring change to the political landscape.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back by Britain to China in 1997, but there are fears that Beijing's influence is growing.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets for more than two months at the end of last year demanding fully free elections for the city's next leader, in what became known as the "Umbrella Movement".

The rallies were sparked after Beijing insisted candidates for the first public vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 would first have to be vetted by a loyalist committee.

Some voters said the democracy movement had motivated them to cast their ballot.

"It's the little power we have," said 28-year-old administrator Kris Fong, voting in the northern district of Yuen Long.

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.

Just over 3.1 million residents are registered, with a 30 percent turnout by early evening.

The figure was slightly higher than at the same stage four years ago.

Turnout at the end of the 2011 vote totalled 41 percent.

Polls close at 10.30pm (0130 AEDT Monday) and results are expected in the early hours of the morning.

Despite galvanising widespread support at the beginning of the mass street protests, democracy activists were unable to win concessions on political reform from the authorities in China or Hong Kong.

The movement has since stalled and splintered - Sunday's vote sees the new generation of democrats stand against the old guard in some seats.

The younger candidates, many of whom cut their teeth during last year's mass rallies, have been dubbed "Umbrella Soldiers" by local media.

The umbrella became the symbol of the movement as protesters used them to shield against the elements, and to protect against pepper spray and tear gas fired by police.

There are 431 representatives for the 18 district councils - currently pro-establishment parties hold a majority in every council.

Pro-government candidates are casting themselves as a force for stability.