Tensions high as Hong Kong votes to select pro-democracy candidates

Thousands of voters turned out to participate in primary elections on Saturday to select democracy candidates to run for seats in Hong Kong's parliamentary elections in September. The poll is set to run over two days and was organised by the group Power for Democracy.

It was thrown into question on Friday after police raided the offices of pollster and co-organizer, the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI). Police told dpa they are investigating the group, without giving further details.

Democratic Party politician Ted Hui, who had feared the elections would be cancelled following the raid, said that voting at all 250 polling stations was running smoothly.

The Democratic camp hopes to ultimately gain a majority in September's Legislative Council election, for which the grouping needs to take 35 or more seats. Dominating the council would give pro-democracy camp more power to veto pro-establishment legislation.

"The electoral system is unfair," Hui said. "With the pro-Beijing camp gaining the majority [of] seats despite getting less votes."

Only half of Legislative Council seats are returned via a democratic vote, with the remainder appointed by pro-establishment lawmakers.

Three million voters participated in Hong Kong's district council elections on 24 November 2019, in which the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory, gaining control of 17 of 18 district councils.

Turnout for the primary elections on Saturday appeared higher than expected, said Hui, and expressed confidence that enough voters would participate by the end of voting on Sunday for the poll to be valid.

Democratic camp rules state that 10% of eligible voters must participate in each district for the result to hold.

The poll comes less than a fortnight after Beijing imposed a new national security law on the territory, targeting separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. The legislation and subsequent international outcry has put democratic processes in Hong Kong under the spotlight, as residents remain uncertain as to what constitutes a violation of the law.

Secretary for Mainland Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang, suggested during a government broadcast on Thursday that organisers and voters in primary elections could be violating the new law.

He also claimed the poll could be manipulated to interfere with September's Legislative Council election.

Gloria Chan, 53, a street canvasser at one of the Island District polling stations, shared her concerns.

"I feel fearful," Chan told dpa. "Because we don't know exactly what is legal and what is illegal, but after last night [Friday's police raid] it has given us more power to stand up and show that this is at least what we can do now."

The pro-Beijing chair of the Legislative Council's House Committee, Starry Lee, said on Facebook it would be "unacceptable" if the primary election was used to promote the pro-democratic camp's political agenda, "or to plot against the 'one country' principle."

Pro-democracy politician and activist Avery Ng firmly denied the accusation of a plot.

"We are campaigning, not manipulating," Ng told dpa from an election campaign stand he was manning in the New Territories.

"It's those who support the disqualification of candidates that are the ones that manipulate democracy," he added. "[Friday's] raid was intimidation and a serious effort to suppress democracy."

Meanwhile, pro-democracy campaign organiser for the Islands District, Matthew Chapple, 50, said the voting system, which used QR codes to register votes, was working well.

"We lost four hours because organisations had to negotiate with police not to take equipment, but we've used it as an opportunity to promote the election because it got a lot of publicity," Chapple said.

"The intention might be to scare people, but it seems like it has done the opposite," he said. 

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