HONG KONG: Hong Kong's opposition camp set up polling booths across the city on Saturday (Jul 11) for primary elections aimed at selecting democracy candidates who stand the best chance of success in Legislative Council elections in September.
Thousands queued in the intense summer heat at unofficial polling stations across the city, hours after police raided an opinion pollster helping to conduct the vote.
"The more Hong Kong people were suppressed, the firmer Hong Kong people stand," said democracy campaigner Benny Tai, a legal scholar and co-organiser of the primary, as voting got underway at 250 polling stations.
As of 6pm on Saturday, more than 137,000 people had cast their votes, organisers said.
"Under the new national security law, no one knows how many pro-democracy candidates would be allowed to run in the upcoming LegCo election. They could possibly be disqualified by the government under the new law," a 34-year-old voter who gave her surname as Poon told AFP near a polling station in Tseung Kwan O district.
"I treasure every chance we still have to vote for the candidate I like and I hope Hong Kong people can show the government that we won't bend our knees through the poll," she added.
The primaries come less than two weeks after Beijing imposed sweeping national security legislation on the Asian financial hub, stoking concerns that wide-ranging freedoms not seen in mainland China will be crushed.
The law punishes what China describes broadly as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison, and allows mainland security agents to operate officially in Hong Kong for the first time.
READ: China opens Hong Kong security agency headquarters; city's leader hails 'historic moment'
On the eve of the primaries, police searched the office of independent pollster Robert Chung, whose Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) helps organise the election, raising concerns among activists of interference in the poll.
"The primary election is our first time to let Beijing know Hong Kongers never bow down to China," said activist Joshua Wong ahead of the opening of polling booths at noon.
"We urge the world to put Hong Kong under the global spotlight."
On Thursday, constitutional and mainland affairs minister Erick Tsang warned that those "organising, planning and participating" in the primary might commit offences of succession, subversion and colluding with foreign forces, according to interviews given to a select few pro-Beijing newspapers.
Au Nok-hin, a former lawmaker and co-organiser of the primary argued that Tsang's remarks were "ungrounded and without any legitimate reasons".
"The suppression (we) faced when organising the primary proves that our government has no tolerance for dissidents, to accept a society with diversity and democratic universal suffrage," Au told media.
While the primaries are only for the opposition camp, observers are watching closely as they say the turnout at the election will serve as a litmus test of broader opposition to the national security law.
The election seeks to bolster the chance for democracy candidates to achieve a 35-plus majority in the 70-seat legislature in polls on Sep 6, potentially giving them power to block government proposals.
Hong Kong's opposition camp secured a landslide victory in district council elections in November, riding on support for an anti-government protest movement triggered by a now-withdrawn Bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Protests that escalated in June last year and evolved into calls for greater democracy have fizzled since police arrested more than 300 people on Jul 1, the day after Beijing introduced the national security law.