Hong Kong elections marred by record low turnout as voters snub poll

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the low turnout by saying there were “various factors” affecting the voting rate. Photograph: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Pro-Beijing candidates have swept Hong Kong’s first legislative election since the government introduced sweeping electoral reforms in the city, but the result was undermined by a record low turnout as many voters snubbed the poll.

Only about 30.2 per cent of the city’s almost 4.5m eligible voters cast their ballots in Sunday’s poll, the lowest since the former British colony’s 1997 handover to China.

While Beijing hailed the event as the city’s first “patriots-only” election, it was slammed as a “sham” by critics for its lack of opposition candidates. Only one of the 90 seats in the Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament, was won by a self-proclaimed “opposition-leaning” candidate.

The candidate, Tik Chi-yuen, chair of the “Third Side” party and a former member of the opposition Democratic party, was one of only about 10 people who had touted themselves as representing the opposition in the poll.

Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system in March, slashing the number of directly elected seats and subjecting all candidates to a “patriotic” vetting process in response to widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The reforms eliminated most pro-democracy politicians from the legislature. Dozens of activists, including former opposition lawmakers, have been jailed, disqualified or fled overseas since Beijing enacted a national security law in the city last year.

“A large majority of the Hong Kong voters decided to boycott the ballot because they think that this election was not democratic, and as a result illegitimate,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor from the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Election promotion

The low turnout came despite a determined government effort to promote the election, including providing free public transport to voters, and campaigns by some companies to encourage staff to cast their ballots, such as by offering an extra day off.

Turnout in Hong Kong’s previous legislative poll in 2016 was 58.3 per cent. The lowest turnout was in 2000, in which 43.6 per cent of voters cast their ballots.

Jason Poon, one of the self-proclaimed “pro-democracy” candidates who lost to Beijing loyalists running for a directly elected seat, told the Financial Times he believed voters who shunned the poll believed “the current election is a system yet to be improved”.

“[The results]also showed that those who got elected are of the same monochromatic background,” he said, despite comments ahead of the election from Xia Baolong, Beijing’s top bureaucrat overseeing Hong Kong, praising the “diversity” of candidates.

The election results came as Beijing issued a white paper on Hong Kong’s “democratic progress” on Monday – the second such document since 2014 – claiming “patriots” governing the territory was the best way forward to “further the [city’s] development of democracy”.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the low turnout by saying there were “various factors” affecting the voting rate. Ms Lam, who is to travel to Beijing on Monday, is up for potential reappointment by Beijing for a second term in March.

One voter in his 20s, surnamed Au, who did not vote, said he believed many residents were “unable to see a significant impact from the election”.

“No candidates [can represent] my true thoughts,” he told the FT. “Any government proposals will be passed in the legislature anyway . . . Thus, this [parliament] will be the most dysfunctional one yet.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021