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Hong Kong voters turn their backs on ‘patriots only’ election with record low turnout

Residents cross the street in front of a wall of campaign banners for the district council elections in Hong Kong on December 10, 2023.Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Getty ImagesHong Kong

Hong Kongers on Sunday delivered another apparent snub to China’s “patriots only” overhaul of the city’s electoral system, as local polls that barred the opposition from standing drew the lowest turnout in decades.

Fewer than 1.2 million Hong Kongers – just 27.5% of those eligible – voted in the district council elections, the lowest turnout in the quadrennial polls since the handover of the former British colony to Beijing’s rule in 1997 despite an all-out government push to get people to cast their ballots.

The tepid participation was a far cry from the last time such elections were held. In 2019, months of anti-government protests galvanized a historic turnout of 71% as the city’s pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory.

Four years on, Hong Kong democrats have effectively been barred from running after a major electoral overhaul that ensures only “patriots” loyal to Beijing can hold office.

Under the move, the number of directly elected district council seats was slashed by 80% to just 88 out of 470, with all candidates required to undergo national security screening and secure nominations from government-appointed committees.

After casting his ballot on Sunday morning, Hong Kong’s leader John Lee called the election “the last piece of the puzzle to implement the principles of patriots governing Hong Kong.”

“From now on, the district councils would no longer be what they were in the past – which was a platform to destruct and reject the government’s administration, to promote Hong Kong independence and to endanger national security,” Lee said.

District council seats in Hong Kong are hyper local positions, the kind that deal with bus routes and garbage collection. But because the vast majority were directly elected – at least before the most recent overhaul – they became a de facto protest referendum in 2019.

The city’s more powerful legislature is now packed with “patriots,” after a 2021 vote for that body also saw a historic low turnout of just 30.2% after Beijing overhauled the political system.

The cases of dozens of pro-democracy figures who held an unofficial primary vote to decide who should contest that election are being heard in an ongoing landmark national security trial on charges of subversion.

A man walks towards a polling station for the district council elections in Hong Kong on December 10, 2023.Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Getty Images

‘A waste of time’

The electoral overhaul is part of broader efforts by China’s ruling Communist Party to remold Hong Kong following the mass protests in 2019.

The following year, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous city, which critics say has been used to stifle political opposition and freedoms.

The Hong Kong government insists the law has ended chaos and “restored stability” to the city.

John Burns, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong, said many voters on Sunday were discouraged by the lack of political diversity in the ballot as they were essentially asked to endorse candidates chosen for them by the government.

And just as with the Legislative Council elections, authorities’ efforts to mobilize them mostly fell on deaf ears.

“Many citizens may view these elections as unfair or illegitimate, because authorities have chased out, intimidated, disqualified, shut down or jailed opposition leaders and parties. Many citizens may view participation in the new arrangements as useless or a waste of time,” he said.

The elections are “little more than an opportunity for citizens to show support for the government. Seventy percent of voters chose not to do so,” he said.

Sunday’s low turnout came despite concerted efforts by Hong Kong government to boost voter numbers.

In the weeks leading up to the election, posters and billboards were plastered across the city to encourage residents to vote “for a better community.” Pro-Beijing candidates and their assistants stood next to early morning traffic, greeting commuters on their way to work.

And in a final push to mobilize voters the day before the polls, the government offered an outdoor concert, carnivals, drone performances and free museum visits as part of the “District Council Election Fun Day.”

“The unprecedented campaign to turn out the vote in the [district council] elections suggests that some authorities sought to use citizen participation in the polls as an endorsement of Hong Kong’s new patriots-only political system,” Burns said. “This function failed. The turnout brings into question the legitimacy of the new system.”

Pedestrians walk past posters promoting the district council elections in Hong Kong.Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing hails new system

By late Sunday afternoon, it became apparent that the turnout was going to be dismal. Campaigners held up emergency signs and issued “urgent appeals” on social media, calling on supporters to come out.

Two hours before the elections were supposed to end, the Hong Kong government announced an “electronic poll register system failure” and extended voting by 90 minutes until midnight.

The electoral commission insisted the extension wasn’t linked to the low turnout, but candidates had used the opportunity to make their last appeals to voters.

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker of the New People’s Party, said on Facebook following the extension announcement that her party’s candidates were “in an extremely critical situation.”

“I earnestly urge all of you to seize this final opportunity, mobilize your entire family, and encourage your neighbors and friends to rush to the polling stations to vote,” she wrote.

On Instagram, she posted a photo of herself standing alone at a polling station in eastern Hong Kong Island. “At 10.57 p.m., the Heng Fa Cheun polling station is completely empty, apart from officials and the candidates’ teams,” she said in the post.

The polls were also closely watched by officials in Beijing.

In a statement Sunday, the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office congratulated the “successful holding” of the election, which it said was “fair, just, lively and orderly” and fully reflected “the advanced nature and superiority of the new district council system.”

It also struck a positive note on the turnout, saying more than 1.19 million voters had taken part in the polls to “take concrete actions to fight back against the slanders and smears of the election.”

From Beijing’s perspective, the low turnout demonstrates the Hong Kong government’s lack of mobilizational capacity, said Burns, from the University of Hong Kong.

“Further ‘re-education’ is needed in Hong Kong, the central authorities may conclude,” he said.

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