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

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.

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

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.

“Apathy is our biggest enemy so far,” Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran former lawmaker and candidate for the main opposition pro-democracy party, 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.”

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

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