HONG KONG: Hong Kong citizens cast their ballots in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform on Sunday, with booths opening across the territory after an online poll that enraged Beijing and stunned organizers with a huge response of more than 650,000 votes.
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 chief executive post.
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 already beaten all expectations—surprising even its organizers, the Occupy Central movement, and defying a massive cyberattack.
On Sunday thousands of voters, some toting umbrellas in the rain, turned out to physically cast their ballot 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, who only gave her surname as Yau, told Agence France-Presse at one of the polling stations set up at an office of a local teachers union.
“People were lining up to vote. It shows that Hong Kong people have a strong desire for genuine democracy,” event organizer and leader of the Occupy Central movement, Benny Tai told reporters.
The nearly 647,400 who had voted both online and at the polling booths as of mid-day on Sunday represents a sizeable chunk of the 3.47 million people who registered to vote at elections in 2012.
The Occupy Central movement has threatened to paralyze the city’s financial district with thousands of protesters at the end of the year, if officials do not produce an acceptable proposal.
Beijing has called the civil referendum as well as the Occupy Central movement “illegal,” and Hong Kong officials have said the results of the vote—which runs until June 29—will have no legal impact.
China’s State Council, the equivalent of its cabinet, said on Friday that any referendum on how Hong Kong elects its leader would not have constitutional grounds and would be illegal and invalid, state news agency Xinhua reported.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying also said on Saturday that there was no legal foundation for the “so-called referendum.”
Tai said on Sunday that more “radical action” could be seen should the government continue to dismiss voters.
“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.