HONG KONG: Hong Kong citizens cast their ballots in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform yesterday, as booths opened across the territory in a poll that has enraged Beijing and drawn nearly 650,000 votes since it opened online.
Tensions are growing in the former British colony over the future of its electoral system, with increasingly vocal calls from residents to be able to choose who can run for the post of chief executive.
Hong Kong’s leader is currently appointed by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee. China has promised direct elections for the next chief executive in 2017, but has ruled out allowing voters to choose which candidates can stand.
Beijing and Hong Kong officials have dismissed the poll as illegal, but participation since voting began online on Friday has beaten all expectations — despite a major cyberattack that the organisers have blamed on Beijing.
Yesterday thousands of voters, some toting umbrellas in the pouring rain, turned out to physically cast their ballots at the 15 polling booths set up around the city.
“I am just acting in accordance with my conscience and this is for our next generation too. As I am not familiar with computers, I came to the voting booth,” a 68-year-old retired teacher said at a station set up at a teachers’ union.
Another voter, 18-year-old Lau I-lung, said: “I am happy I can use a vote to determine the future system of elections. I think it can make a difference.”
“People were lining up to vote. It shows that Hong Kong people have a strong desire for genuine democracy,” said Benny Tai, one of the founders of the Occupy Central movement which organised the ballot.
The roughly 647,400 who had voted both online and at the polling booths as of yesterday afternoon represent a sizeable chunk of the 3.47 million people who registered to vote at elections in 2012.
Voters have until June 29 to cast their ballot either online or at the polling booth.
The poll allows residents to choose between three options on how the 2017 chief executive ballot should be carried out — each of which would allow voters to choose candidates for the top job, and all therefore considered unacceptable by Beijing.
The “PopVote” website built by the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, suffered a large-scale attack last week that Tai and the pro-democracy press said could only have been carried out by Beijing.
Although the unofficial referendum will have no legal effect, activists hope that a high turnout will bolster the case for reform.
“If the government decided to ignore people’s call, indeed there may be a possibility of more radical action. I hope the government does not push Hong Kong people to that point,” Tai told reporters.
Rimsky Yuen, the city’s secretary for justice, yesterday echoed the official stance that the vote “cannot be regarded as legally-binding, let alone be regarded as a so-called ‘referendum’”.