Hong Kong election: Voter turnout falls to record low

HONG KONG (AP) — Voter turnout in Hong Kong’s first election has fallen below 30% District Council Election New rules introduced under Beijing’s guidance effectively shut out all pro-democracy candidates, a record low since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

According to official data on Monday, 27.5% of the city’s 4.3 million registered voters cast their ballots. Polling on Sunday – Significantly lower than the participation record of 71.2% Past elections Held at the height of anti-government protests in 2019. The pro-democracy camp won overwhelmingly in those polls, a clear rebuke of the government’s handling of the protests.

Loyalists of Beijing are expected to take control of district councils after Sunday’s election, which saw major pro-government parties win directly elected seats.

“The newly elected district councilors come from diverse backgrounds,” said Hong Kong President John Lee. “They will make the work in the districts more multi-dimensional … working better with the interests of the citizens.”

The district councils, which primarily deal with municipal matters such as building projects and organizing public facilities, are largely elected by the public as Hong Kong’s last major political bodies.

But under new election rules introduced under Beijing’s decree that only “patriots” should govern the city, candidates must win approval from at least nine members of government-appointed committees, which are often filled with Beijing loyalists, making any bias impossible. Democratic candidates must run.

An amendment passed in July reduced the proportion of directly elected seats from around 90% to around 20%.

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Several prominent pro-democracy activists have also been arrested or fled the territory after Beijing imposed a strict national security law in response to the 2019 protests.

Critics say the low voter turnout reflects people’s perception of a single organization called the “Patriots” and the government’s crackdown on dissent.

The previous record for participation in council elections since handover to Chinese rule in 1999 was 35.8%.

Following a separate transition to the legislature in 2021, electoral changes further narrowed political freedom in the city. Following those changes, polling in the last assembly elections two years ago dropped to 30% up from 58% in 2016.

Lee said on Sunday that the council elections were the “last piece of the puzzle” in implementing the doctrine of “patriots” governing the city.

Beijing’s top office for Hong Kong affairs said on Monday the council elections helped “promote democracy”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said the Chinese government hopes the newly elected members can serve as a “good link” between the city government and the people of Hong Kong.

Government officials have downplayed voter turnout as a measure of the reform’s success, but have stepped up efforts to promote the vote. Lee’s administration held carnivals, outdoor concerts, and offered free admission to some museums to encourage voting.

Kenneth Chan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Government and International Studies, said the low voter turnout was not the result of political apathy or a concerted boycott, but rather “widespread political engagement by design” under the revised rules, which most people understand. That they are “uninvited”.

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“Given the unprecedented campaigning and omnipresent mobilization, the low turnout should be a huge humiliation for the government and its allies,” he said.

John Burns, an emeritus professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said a turnout of about 28% indicated a degree of “lack of legitimacy” for the elections and the new councils.

Burns expected that the new councils might consult “a narrow range of patriots” who were like-minded, and which might put the government out of touch with the real concerns and opinions of the people.

“It leads to instability,” he said. “The government may not understand the expectations of the people while making policy. Government needs active cooperation of all citizens to implement policies.”

Sunday’s election was extended by 1.5 hours due to a failure in the electronic voter registration system. Several politicians said the impasse could hurt their chances of victory, as some residents abandoned voting before officials implemented a contingency plan.

David Locke, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, declined to comment on the turnout, saying it was unclear whether some voters were unable to cast their ballots because of irregularities.

“I cannot rule out this possibility,” he said. “If they can’t vote because of our mistakes, I’m sorry.”

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