Hong Kongers will head to legislative council polls next week to fill four seats that were left vacant after its members were disqualified over the 2016 oath-taking saga.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp is seeking to regain lost territory in crucial legislative by-elections on Sunday, which it hopes will draw protest votes against perceived political screening and creeping control from communist rulers in Beijing.
The opposition in the former British colony has lost the power to block most bills in the legislative council since six lawmakers, elected by more than 180,000 votes in 2016, were ousted. Activists fear the council will become a rubber-stamp parliament, like the National People's Congress in Beijing, if the seats are not recaptured.
Four of the ejected lawmakers were pro-democracy, and two of them were pro-independence, a red line for Beijing.
Fifteen candidates are running for four of those seats with the results difficult to predict. The streets are mostly quiet, and there are few election banners, even fewer televised debates and no comprehensive popularity polls.
'Need to demand changes'
"The mood is subdued... many people feel helpless and think things can't be changed, and the central government will eventually take control over Hong Kong," said 20-year-old student Peter Lee who attended a pro-democracy rally of a few hundred people.
“But that's why we need to come out now to demand changes, before it's too late."
His preferred candidate, student activist Agnes Chow, 21, has already been disqualified because she supports Hong Kong's right to self-determination, which China sees as a front for outright independence.
Chow and her party, Demosisto, say they are not advocating independence, but instead demanding a referendum on Hong Kong's future, which would include independence, among other options.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including limited democracy.
But massive street protests in 2014 failed to ensure universal suffrage, with Beijing vetting candidates for the territory's leader to be chosen by a small electoral group in line with pro-Beijing elite.
Strategy to diminish autonomy
While city-wide elections that fill up half of the 70-seat legislature once every four years are seen as the most open, international confidence in Hong Kong’s electoral freedom was shaken after candidates and elected lawmakers were ousted.
Among those 15 candidates is ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu, a 53-year-old surveyor and former professor who emerged as an unlikely politician after the 2014 protests.
After working as a legislator for nearly a year, a Hong Kong court, citing a Beijing interpretation, ruled Yiu’s oath of office invalid in July because he had added a few phrases, including a vow to fight for universal suffrage.
"This election is a vote of no confidence against the disqualifications and against authoritarianism," Yiu said.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp emerged victorious in the 2016 citywide poll that saw a record turnout, sending a crop of new young activists and protest leaders into the legislature.
But the city’s then-chief executive won lawsuits against the six, over the validity of their oaths, some laden with profanities and demands for independence, stripping them of their seats.