Hong Kong democrats hope to regain veto powers in crucial by-election

By James Pomfret
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FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam and Democratic Party member Lee meet journalists in Hong Kong

FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting (L) and Democratic Party member Lee Cheuk-yan meet journalists outside a hospital in Hong Kong, China August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's democratic opposition is aiming to win back a crucial legislative council seat in an election on Sunday that will restore some of its veto power at a time when the China-ruled city's freedoms are under strain.

The city's opposition Democrats squandered a chance in March to regain their veto power, garnering only two of four seats in a by-election and leaving them one seat short of blocking most bills in the 70-seat chamber, now largely controlled by pro-Beijing allies.

After 156 years 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.

While the Democrats have enjoyed strong public backing in the past from a public aggrieved by China's creeping control of the Asian financial hub, they've struggled against a far larger and better funded pro-Beijing camp and unprecedented moves by authorities to curb electoral freedoms.

A pro-independence political party was banned this year, while several promising democracy activists were barred from contesting various polls after being deemed ideologically unsuitable for public office.

Sunday's by-election, and that in March, were triggered when six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted over invalid oaths of office. Critics said the move was politically motivated, raising fresh questions over Hong Kong's reputation as a relative haven for freedoms not allowed anywhere in mainland China.

"The democrats have had so many seats taken away from them," said Wa Lam, a 47-year-old salesman who voted with his wife.

"They're getting weaker and weaker, but I hope they can still hold on and help guard the city."

A higher turnout is expected to help the democrats, but by late afternoon, only around a quarter of the 490,000 eligible voters had cast a ballot.

"Apathy is our biggest enemy so far," Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran former pro-democracy lawmaker and the main candidate for the democratic camp, told Reuters.

"This election is crucial ... we can further resist the erosion of our power base by the (Chinese) Communist party. I think most people don't want Hong Kong to become another Chinese city," added Lee.

Lee's main rival will be pro-establishment Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, a former television journalist with broadcaster TVB. In the run-up to the election Chan was ensnared in several controversies including plagiarizing the work of democratic politicians.

The poll comes at a time of increasing international concern toward a perceived deterioration in Hong Kong civil liberties.

Nine activists including lawmakers and university professors are now facing public nuisance charges stemming from the massive pro-democracy "Occupy Central" protests in 2014. Their landmark trial could see them jailed for up to seven years.

A senior editor for the Financial Times, Victor Mallet, was also effectively expelled from the city in recent months, soon after he helped host a speech by an independence activist at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in a congressional report this month that China had "ramped up its interference" and had "closed down the political space for pro-democracy activists to express discontent".

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry and Richard Pullin)