Hong Kongers are heading to the polls for the first major election since pro-democracy street protests rocked the Chinese territory in 2014.

About 7.12 percent of registered voters had turned out three hours after the opening of the polls on Sunday.

According to government statistics, that's little below the 7.48 percent who turned out in 2012 but more than the 5.66 percent who voted in 2008.

The vote for Legislative Council lawmakers in the specially administered Chinese city is seen as the most crucial election since its handover from Britain in 1997. The outcome could pave the way for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing's control of the city.

The city's widely unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, cast his ballot earlier on Sunday and urged the public to turn out and vote.

At stake is the power to keep Leung and his government in check.

Pro-democracy lawmakers currently control 27 of 70 seats in the Legislative Council, compared with 43 held by lawmakers friendly to Beijing.

The democrats are fighting to keep control of at least a third of the seats, which gives them veto power to block government attempts to enact unpopular legislation, such as Beijing's controversial election revamp that triggered the 2014 street protests.

Hong Kong: Rooftopping for freedom and disobedience

The pro-democracy vote, though, risks being split by the emergence of a new generation of radical activists. They compete with moderate mainstream parties to challenge formidable pro-Beijing rivals.

"Joining the fray are those young radical groups who sprung up after the protest movement, some of whom are calling for outright independence from mainland China. That is adding a whole new dimension to this election," Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong, said.

"The protests against Beijing have really raised the temperature here."

Outside the polling station where he cast his vote, a small group of protesters demanded Leung step down

"Our election is a democratic election," Leung told reporters. "The democracy in the election is reflected by the free choice of voters, they do not need to be told who to vote," he said, when asked his thoughts on how last-minute decisions by seven mostly pro-democracy candidates to suspend their campaigns in a bid to consolidate votes for those with more support would affect results.

The growing calls for independence highlight frustration among residents, especially the young, who are chafing under Beijing's tightening hold.

A spate of incidents, including the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who later resurfaced in mainland Chinese detention, has aroused fears that Beijing is reneging on its promise of wide autonomy for Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" framework.

Source: Al Jazeera And Agencies