Turnout slumps to record low of 27.5% in Hong Kong ‘patriots-only’ poll

Voters stay away from polls overhauled to limit number of directly elected seats and keep those deemed disloyal out of public office.

Four police officers standing guard outside a polling station in Hong Kong. One has a dog on a leash.
Police stand guard near a polling station in Hong Kong [Isaac Lawrence/AFP]

Hong Kong’s first “patriots only” district council elections saw a turnout of just 27.5 percent, a record low, after all opposition candidates were excluded from the ballot.

At the last polls in 2019, turnout surged to a record high as voters backed pro-democracy candidates following months of sometimes violent mass protests, handing the opposition a landslide victory.

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law the following year and embarked on an overhaul of the territory’s electoral systems to exclude anyone deemed disloyal from holding public office.

Sunday’s voting stretched to midnight after a rare 90-minute extension was granted following a failure in the digital system used to confirm voters’ eligibility.

Despite the extra time, the government’s official website on Monday showed that the final turnout was 27.54 percent, with just under 1.2 million of Hong Kong’s 4.3 million registered electors casting a vote.

“It can be seen that everyone has begun to feel that the election has no meaning,” said Lemon Wong, one of the few democrats still involved in local politics.

“Even pro-establishment supporters are asking themselves why they need to vote because it’s all the same.”

The previous lowest turnout was 35.8 percent in 1999. Turnout also slumped in last year’s delayed Legislative Council election, the first following the changes to the electoral system.

For the district council poll, the number of directly elected seats was cut by nearly 80 percent – from 462 to 88, with the remaining seats controlled by the city leader, government loyalists and rural landlords.

People in Hong Kong walking past banners for district council candidates
Candidates had to be vetted before they could stand and just 88 seats were directly elected [Isaac Lawrence/AFP]

All candidates were required to undergo national security checks and secure nominations from two pro-government committees.

At least three pro-democracy and non-pro-establishment groups, including moderates, and even some pro-Beijing figures failed to meet those thresholds. More than 70 percent of the candidates picked to run for the election were themselves members of the nominating committees.

More than 10,000 police deployed

In the early hours of Monday, the territory’s Chief Executive John Lee thanked the “more than 1 million” voters who had turned out to vote.

He defended the election’s legitimacy, citing a need to secure stability in Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“It is the last piece of the puzzle for us to implement the principles of patriots governing Hong Kong,” Lee, a former policeman and security chief, said after casting his vote.

“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 claimed.

Security around polling stations was tight on Sunday, with more than 10,000 police deployed for the elections.

At least six people were arrested for alleged offences, including posting online for people to cast invalid ballots or to incite others to disrupt the polls, according to statements from the police and the city’s anti-corruption authority.

Three members of the League of Social Democrats, one of the last surviving pro-democracy groups, were among those followed and arrested just before they planned to protest against what they described as a “birdcage election” and a “big leap backwards” for electoral and democratic rights in Hong Kong.

The police said in a statement that the three were arrested on suspicion of attempting to “incite others” to disrupt the poll.

The League called the arrests “extremely ironic and ridiculous”.

On Friday, the national security police arrested a 77-year-old man for an “attempt to carry out seditious acts”.

A 38-year-old man was charged on Tuesday for reposting a video of an overseas commentator that allegedly incited people to boycott the election.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies