HONG KONG (Reuters) - A low turnout in by-elections in Hong Kong on Sunday raised alarms among the city’s pro-democracy camp as its candidates struggled to gain sufficient seats to win back a legislative veto bloc and a recount was ordered in one closely fought district.
Some voters voiced concerns about the city’s future in light of news that China’s parliament had passed a constitutional change paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.
Some 43 percent of the territory’s 2.1 million eligible voters cast ballots, the government said, far less than the record 58 percent turnout at the last full legislative election two years ago.
The city’s democratic opposition has so far won two of the four seats up for grabs, and the pro-establishment camp one.
The remaining seat in Kowloon West hangs in the balance, with authorities ordering a recount as only a slender margin separates the democratic candidate, Edward Yiu, and pro-Beijing party DAB’s Vincent Cheng.
The four Legislative Council seats were once held by Yiu and other pro-democracy lawmakers who were ousted from public office over invalid oaths of office in a move critics said was politically motivated.
If the democrats fail to recapture the fourth seat, they will lose veto power over most bills in the legislature, which could effectively become a rubber-stamp parliament not unlike Beijing’s National People’s Congress.
Sunday’s polls coincided with the historic vote in Beijing’s parliament that removed the Chinese president’s term limits.
That stoked unease in Hong Kong, given the relatively tough line Xi has taken in political dealings with the country’s financial hub.
“There is not much freedom (under Xi) and the space for expression is getting narrower for Hong Kong,” said voter Candy Chan, 24, emerging from a polling station. “While I haven’t completely lost hope, my feeling is things will gradually get worse.”
Another voter, Sophia Yiu, 23, said of Xi: “Nobody would believe such a person would do any good for Hong Kong.”
During a visit to Hong Kong last July, Xi warned Beijing would not tolerate any challenge to its authority.
Prior to Sunday’s polls, several democracy activists including Agnes Chow were barred from running, drawing international criticism, including from the European Union.
Some democrats in the city of 7.3 million say these polls are crucial to redress the injustice of the disqualifications, and to safeguard Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy.
“If we lose today, the government and the pro-establishment forces will get their way, and we won’t see any system to speak of under the rule of Xi Jinping, who is now effectively declaring himself an emperor,” 21-year-old student democracy activist Joshua Wong wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday after news of the low turnout broke.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam voted at a school in the exclusive Peak district but declined to speak with reporters as a small group of protesters scuffled with police nearby.
A former Hong Kong leader, Tung Chee-Hwa, said the elections were important as Hong Kong was at a “critical juncture”.
“The time for squabbling should be over,” he said, calling on voters to back those who are “constructive, practical and truly want to serve Hong Kong.”
After more than a century of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
Over the past two decades however, tensions have simmered and occasionally boiled over with activists pushing in vain for full democracy amidst opposition from Beijing.
Since large street protests in late 2014 blocked major roads for 79 days, critics say authorities have sought to suppress and demoralize a younger generation of activists - some of whom were jailed or face lawsuits.
Additional reporting by Tina Ge, Venus Wu, Pak Yiu, Wyman Ma, Carmel Yang; editing by Michael Perry and John Stonestreet