Pro-Beijing candidates have swept to victory in Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” legislative election, with turnout hitting a record low amid China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms.
Some 30.2 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in Sunday’s election, a figure that is almost half that of the previous legislative poll in 2016.
The election was the first in Hong Kong since Beijing amended electoral laws to reduce the number of directly elected legislators and vet candidates to ensure that only those loyal to China could run.
The latest results show that almost all of the seats have been taken by pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates.
Some of these candidates cheered on stage at the central vote-counting centre and chanted “guaranteed win”.
Half of the directly elected seats were won by the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). The party’s head, when asked if the DAB lacked a public mandate given the low turnout, said the electoral revamps would improve governance.
“I do not believe this (the low turnout) is directly related to citizens not agreeing with this electoral system,” Starry Lee told reporters. “I believe it needs some time for people to get adapted to this system.”
The election – in which only candidates screened by the government as “patriots” could run – has been criticised by some activists, foreign governments and rights groups as undemocratic. Mainstream pro-democracy parties did not participate, saying they could not endorse any candidates for a poll that was undemocratic.
Most of the dozen or so candidates who called themselves moderates, including former democratic legislator Frederick Fung, failed to gain a seat, beaten by pro-Beijing rivals.
“It’s not easy to push people (to vote). I think they are feeling indifferent in the present situation,” Fung told the Reuters news agency.
Some overseas democrats, like Sunny Cheung, who moved to the United States to escape prosecution under the national security law, said most of Hong Kong had “consciously boycotted the election to express their discontent to the world”.
The previous record low for a legislative election held after the city’s 1997 return from British to Chinese rule was 43.6 percent in 2000.
There was no immediate comment from China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong on the result and the low turnout.
Turnout is a central issue, as observers consider it a barometer of legitimacy in an election where pro-democracy candidates are largely absent, and a crackdown under a China-imposed national security law has jailed dozens of pro-democratic contenders who had originally wanted to run, and forced others into exile.
Under the electoral shake-up, the proportion of directly elected seats was reduced from approximately half to less than a quarter or 20 seats.
Forty seats were selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, while the remaining 30 were filled by professional and business sectors such as finance and engineering, known as functional constituencies.
The turnout rate for these professional groups also fell from 74 percent in 2016, to 32.2 percent. Some sectors whose voters have traditionally been relatively pro-democracy, including education, social welfare, and law, had sharply lower turnout rates.
In 2019, the last big citywide election in Hong Kong for district councils seats, the turnout rate was 71 percent with about 90 percent of the 452 seats won by democrats.
While some observers say the low turnout could undermine the new legislature’s legitimacy, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said in a statement that the 1.3 million or so ballots cast were a “show of support for the improved electoral system”.