Low early turnout in Hong Kong by-elections on Sunday raised alarms in the city's pro-democracy camp while some voters also voiced concerns over Hong Kong's future in the wake of news that Chinese President Xi Jinping could stay in power indefinitely.
Only one-third of the city's 2.1 million eligible voters had cast their ballots with three hours until polls close, government figures showed, reflecting a 10 percent drop from turnout at the same point in the last election two years ago.
Fifteen candidates are running to fill four Legislative Council seats once held by pro-democracy lawmakers who were ousted from public office over invalid oaths of office.
Critics said the move was politically motivated and aimed at weakening the opposition, while authorities blamed the lawmakers for not taking their oaths properly.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp worries that if they do not recapture at least some of the seats, they will not have any veto power in the legislature, which would effectively become a rubber-stamp parliament like Beijing's National People's Congress.
Sunday's polls coincided with a historic vote in Beijing's parliament which removed the Chinese president's term limits, setting the stage for President Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely.
That news has stoked some unease in Hong Kong, as some worry about its long-term implications given Xi's relative tough line on the freewheeling financial hub.
"There is not much freedom [under Xi] and the space for expression is getting narrower for Hong Kong," said voter Candy Chan, 24, emerging from a polling station. "While I haven't completely lost hope, my feeling is things will gradually get worse."
Another voter, Sophia Yiu, 23, said Xi "just wants to be an emperor himself."
"Nobody would believe such a person would do any good for Hong Kong," she said.
During a visit to Hong Kong last July, Xi warned Beijing won't tolerate any challenge to its authority.
Prior to Sunday's polls, several democracy activists including Agnes Chow were barred from running, drawing international criticism, including from the European Union.
Some democrats in the city of 7.3 million say these polls are crucial to redress the injustice of the disqualifications, and to safeguard Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy.
"If we lose today, the government and the pro-establishment forces will get their way, and we won't see any system to speak of under the rule of Xi Jinping, who is now effectively declaring himself an emperor," 21-year-old student democracy activist Joshua Wong wrote on his Facebook page upon news of a low turnout rate.
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam voted at a school in the exclusive Peak district but declined to speak with reporters as a small group of protesters scuffled with police nearby.
A former Hong Kong leader, Tung Chee-Hwa, said the elections were important as Hong Kong was at a "critical juncture".
"The time for squabbling should be over," he said, calling on voters to back those who are "constructive, practical and truly want to serve Hong Kong."
After more than a century of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
Over the past two decades however, tensions have simmered and occasionally boiled over with activists pushing in vain for full democracy amidst opposition from Beijing.
Since large street protests in late 2014 which blocked major roads for 79 days, critics say authorities have sought to suppress and demoralize a younger generation of activists — some of whom were jailed or face lawsuits.