HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong voted in citywide by-elections on Sunday, polls which pro-democracy groups consider to be a de facto referendum on universal suffrage aimed at pressuring Beijing to grant swifter political reforms.
The polls were triggered by the resignations of five pro-democracy lawmakers in January in a bid to reinvigorate public debate over constitutional development — a major bone of contention between democrats and Beijing since Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“This is quite a watershed move for radical politics in Hong Kong,” said James Sung, a political analyst at City University.
The five democrats — from the moderate Civic Party and more hardline League of Social Democrats — are almost certain to be re-elected given the absence of serious rivals following a boycott by leading pro-establishment and pro-Beijing parties.
Despite that, the democrats have struggled to secure a respectable turnout to bolster their plan’s legitimacy.
A total of 3.4 million people are eligible to vote in the city of seven million, with one seat up for grabs in each of five districts.
“This is a golden opportunity for the people of Hong Kong to stand up and be counted,” said Martin Lee, a veteran democrat.
Initial turnout rates at the 500 or so polling stations, however, were far below previous legislative elections.
The referendum plan has been slammed by Beijing as a “blatant challenge” to their authority. Senior Hong Kong officials have snubbed the polls, leader Donald Tsang calling the exercise a waste of money.
Beijing has promised full democracy in Hong Kong in 2017 but the Democrats want it in 2012.
Hong Kong now has no direct say in its leader, with Tsang elected by an 800-person committee. Only half the legislature is directly elected.
The rest is comprised of special interest groups, known as functional constituencies, which the democrats want abolished.
A package of electoral reforms aimed at injecting greater democratic elements into elections in 2012 will be voted upon by legislators this summer, but the democrats have already said they’ll likely reject the package for not going far enough.
(Editing by Paul Tait)