Hong Kong votes in key legislative elections

Poll comes after protests against planned Chinese patriotism classes in schools forced the government to make a U-turn.

    Hong Kong voters went to the polls in legislative elections seen as a crucial test for the Beijing-backed government, as calls for full democracy grow and disenchantment with Chinese rule surges.

    Nearly 3.5 million people are eligible to cast ballots in the poll, which comes after weeks of protests against a plan to introduce Chinese patriotism classes into schools forced the government into a last-minute backdown on Saturday.

    Voting began at 7:30am (23:30 GMT Saturday) and would go on until 10:30pm with results not expected until Monday.

    The new 70-seat legislature could pave the way for universal suffrage in 2017 for the job of chief executive and by 2020 for the parliament.

    Forty of the 70 seats in the new legislature are directly elected - the first time that more than half of the seats up for grabs would be decided by popular vote.

    The remainder are chosen by small groups of electors selected along economic and professional lines.

    Besides the protests over education policy, tensions have been brewing over corruption, the yawning gap between rich and poor, soaring property prices and the strains of coping with an influx of millions of mainland tourists.

    Surveys show dissatisfaction with mainland rule is rising sharply, especially among the young, and analysts are expecting one of the highest turnouts of any election in the former British colony.

    Willem Van Kamenade, a China analyst and author, told Al Jazeera in an interview from Beijing that in spite of the backdown, the attempt to change the curriculum was likely to influence the election.

    "The most revolting phrase of it is that single-party is good, and that Western-style democracy is divisive," he said.

    "Probably the vote from the pro-Beijing faction, which does exist, will be reduced [by the debate]," he said.

    Victory for people-power

    The U-turn on education was a major victory for people-power in a city that was ruled as a colony of Britain until 1997, when it was handed back to China as a semi-autonomous territory with broad rights and freedoms.

    Organisers said protests outside the government headquarters swelled to 120,000 people, mainly students and parents, on Friday, and 100,000 people on the eve of the elections. Police put the number at 27,500 on Saturday evening.

    Critics of the plan said it amounted to brainwashing, citing state-funded course materials praising the benefits of one-party rule.

    Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying held a news conference late on Saturday to say the 2016 deadline for the curriculum to be taught in all primary and secondary schools had been dropped and the entire policy would be reviewed.

    "The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education," he said, blaming the policy on his predecessor after defending it for weeks in the face of the public outcry.

    Pro-democracy parties were using the education furore to galvanise their supporters, hoping to boost their representation.

    But democracy activists fear Beijing will try to screen the candidates that people can vote for in the future, to ensure the city does not elect a government hostile to communist rule on the mainland.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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