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Hong Kongers vote in democracy referendum

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong citizens cast their ballots in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform Sunday, 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 Friday has beaten all expectations — despite a major cyberattack that the organizers have blamed on Beijing.

On Sunday 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 told AFP 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 organized the ballot.

The roughly 647,400 who had voted both online and at the polling booths as of Sunday afternoon represent a sizeable chunk of the 3.47 million people who registered to vote at elections held in 2012.

Voters have until June 29 to cast their ballot either online or at the polling booth.

'Strong case for reform'

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 (https://www.popvote.hk/), 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, on Sunday echoed the official stance that the vote “cannot be regarded as legally binding, let alone be regarded as a so-called 'referendum.'”

“For that reason, it can only be regarded as no more than an expression of opinion by the general public,” Yuen said.

Occupy Central, a pro-democracy movement launched by local activists, has threatened to paralyze the city's financial district with thousands of protesters at the end of the year if officials do not produce proposal they find acceptable.

The group is planning a massive sit-in mimicking the Occupy protests in cities such as New York and London in 2011, to force electoral guarantees from the authorities.

China's State Council, the equivalent of its cabinet, said Friday that any referendum on how Hong Kong elects its leader has no constitutional basis and would be “illegal and invalid,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

Outside one polling station, a dozen pro-Beijing activists rallied against the referendum, shouting through loudspeakers at those going into the venue.

“The referendum is a hoax,” protesters shouted.

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 More than 500,000 vote in unofficial HK democracy poll 
People line up at a polling center to vote in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform in Hong Kong, Sunday. (AP)

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