Voting is under way in Hong Kong to elect a committee, which is tasked with choosing the next leader of the Chinese-administered city in the upcoming election slated to be held in March next year.
Sunday’s vote comes only two days after the semi-autonomous city’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he would not run for office again when his term ends in July 2017.
While jubilant at his announcement, Leung’s critics fear another hardline Beijing-backed leader will be assigned to the role by the Election Committee.
This year, some 1,239 candidates are competing for 733 seats on the 1,200-member Election Committee.
A total of 461 members of the committee have already been automatically elected, including those who faced no contest and those who are ex-officio members.
The remaining six seats, which will be left vacant for various reasons, include the seats of two pro-independence MPs who were disqualified from taking office after their oaths of allegiance were deemed invalid.
The vote, in which 230,000 voters – six percent of the total electorate, will be allowed to cast ballots is widely criticised as “undemocratic”.
The voters, who are selected to represent prominent sectors and interest groups in Hong Kong, are mostly seen as pro-China.
There are increasing fears that China is tightening its grip on the city it inherited from the UK in 1997, particularly after two pro-independence lawmakers advocating a complete split from Beijing were barred from taking up their seats.
The Hong Kong government is also taking four other pro-democracy legislators to court on Thursday, in a bid to unseat them after an intervention from Beijing.
Around a thousand protesters rallied in Hong Kong on Saturday against what they view as a continuous crackdown on pro-democracy lawmakers and an electoral system skewed towards Beijing.
“The direct message we hope to send to Beijing is we will not forgive and we will fight for democracy and freedom,” said Joshua Wong, who led mass pro-democracy rallies in 2014.
“We will not allow Beijing to disqualify one more legislator, because they are democratically elected,” Wong, 20, told the AFP news agency at Saturday’s rally, which took place in gardens in the central commercial district.
The city’s youngest lawmaker Nathan Law, 23, who is one of the four the government is seeking to unseat, addressed the crowd saying: “We need to use our legs, our bodies, to tell the regime they can’t oppress us.
“They might be taking away my seat, but they are [also] imprisoning the people’s minds.”
Protest leaders also slammed the Election Committee which they see as an institution Beijing uses to control the government of the city.
Veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, also among the four legislators the government are trying to unseat, told reporters the leadership system was a “tragedy”.
Protester Jack Chan, 18, said Leung was not the root of the problem. “It’s China interfering with Hong Kong’s development,” he said.
Another protester at the rally, Mary Lam, who is in her 40s, said Hong Kong was being “mainlandised” by China.
“The pro-establishment camp is hurting Hong Kong, so we need to come out,” she said.