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Hong Kong goes to polls in first vote since democracy protests

HONG KONG – Hong Kong will go to the polls Sunday, November 22, for the first time since huge pro-democracy protests gripped the city, in what is being seen as a key test of public sentiment.

The spotlight is on the district elections more than ever before to gauge whether support for the democracy movement can translate into votes and bring a fundamental change to Hong Kong's political landscape.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets for more than two months at the end of last year demanding fully free elections for the city's next leader, in what became known as the "Umbrella Movement".

The rallies were sparked after Beijing insisted candidates for the first public vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 would first have to be vetted by a loyalist committee.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back by Britain to China in 1997, but there are fears that Beijing's influence is growing.

Despite galvanizing widespread support at the beginning of their campaign, activists were unable to win concessions on political reform from the authorities in China or Hong Kong.

The democracy movement has since splintered, as young campaigners have become frustrated with their older, more established, counterparts.

This year's district vote sees the new generation of democrats stand against the old guard in some seats, giving pro-government candidates a chance to capitalize on a split vote.

The younger candidates, many of whom cut their teeth during last year's mass rallies, have been dubbed "Umbrella Soldiers" by local media.

The umbrella became the symbol of the movement as street protesters used them as shields against the elements, and to protect against pepper spray and tear gas fired by police.

Voters on Sunday will choose 431 representatives for the 18 district councils – currently pro-establishment parties hold a majority.

With the city deeply divided between those who favor more democratization and those who support Beijing, pro-government candidates are casting themselves as a force for stability, in contrast with democracy campaigners who they blame for disrupting life in the former colony.

Meanwhile, democrats from both new and old camps are trying to draw voters back to them again and overcome a sense of hopelessness that has descended since the failure of the movement to force reform.

Although pro-democracy lawmakers succeeded in voting down the Beijing-backed bill that sparked last year's protests, some supporters now question whether meaningful change can ever be brought to a political system so closely tied to Beijing.

Analysts say it is unlikely the democrats will significantly increase their seats Sunday, outgunned by the well-funded and better organized pro-government camp.

But young activists say making a stand is an important first step for the next generation of antagonists, even in they lose. – Laura Mannering, AFP/Rappler.com