Record Low Turnout for Hong Kong’s “Patriots Only” Election in Rebuke to Beijing

Sunday’s election for Hong Kong’s legislative council yielded the lowest turnout in the history of the city’s legislative elections under both Chinese and British rule. In this “patriots only” election—featuring only candidates vetted by the government and deemed to be sufficiently patriotic—pro-establishment candidates swept all but one seat. Hours after the polls closed, Beijing released a new white paper triumphantly touting Hong Kong’s democracy.

The legislative elections were originally scheduled to be held last year. The government claimed that the postponement was due to “virus concerns,” but critics argue that it was a deliberate attempt to ram through an election reform that gutted the legislature by cutting the number of directly-elected seats from 35 to 20, expanding the electoral influence of pro-Beijing groups, and instituting a triple vetting procedure immune from judicial review and overseen by the National Security Police. So many progressive candidates were excluded from running that only three of the 153 final candidates openly identified as pro-democracy. Selina Cheng from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on the pro-establishment blowout amid little competition:

With ballot counting for all constituencies completed by Monday at around 11am, pro-establishment candidates swept the seats in the new 90-person legislature, which will have just one member not from the pro-establishment bloc.

In the 10 geographic constituencies which each elected two members, all 11 candidates who identified as pro-democracy, independent or just non-establishment lost by wide margins as turnout slumped.

[…] The only “non-pro-establishment” candidate elected was Tik Chi-yuen. The founder of the self-declared centrist party Third Side won in the social welfare functional constituency, with about 1,400 votes. His competitors Chu Lai-ling representing the DAB and Yip Cham-kai who ran independently had 872 and 196 votes respectively.

[…] The last result in the election was the one for the labour functional constituency, where four candidates were running for three seats.

Kwok Wai-keung and Dennis Leung of the pro-Beijing HKFTU, together with Chau Siu-chung of the pro-establishment Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Unions were elected.

The four labour candidates and their campaign staffers, including losing candidate Lee Kwong-yu, chanted “Unity in the labour sector, sure win!” on stage after the winners were declared. [Source]

Deterred by this exclusionary new electoral system, the public turned out in historically low numbers. The previous record-low turnout was 43.6 percent—still higher than this year’s 30.2 percent—during the 2000 legislative elections following the British handover of the city to China. In the 2016 legislative elections, 58 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In the November 2019 district elections, the most recent elections in the city, 71 percent of eligible voters turned out, and democrats won 86 percent of the directly elected seats. Another notable feature of this election, apart from the low turnout, was the record number of invalid ballots cast by voters: 27,225, amounting to 2.2 percent of the total vote. In the previous six elections, invalid ballots ranged from a much lower 0.57-1.52 percent of the total vote.

Armed with the imposing National Security Law, the city government attempted to salvage the legitimacy of the election by pouncing on any hint of criticism. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Erick Tsang, threatened the Wall Street Journal with legal action after one of its editorials called the election a “sham.” The Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption warned the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute that it could be in breach of the law simply by publishing the results of its opinion poll in the lead-up to the election. The poll found that 35 percent of respondents did not plan to vote, a vast understatement compared to the actual number of voters who stayed away from the polls.

The government also undertook positive measures to try to bolster the legitimacy of the election. In an unprecedented effort to increase voter turnout, it made public transportation free on election day and sent mass text messages to citizens urging them to vote. (Many citizens used the free transportation to go to malls or parks instead.) The government even set up polling stations at the border with mainland China so that Hong Kong residents living outside the city could vote without having to pass through quarantine screening. 

The Chinese government has tried to portray the Hong Kong elections, not to mention the entire Chinese political system, as genuinely democratic. Over the past few weeks, Beijing has launched a “discourse power” offensive criticizing the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy and extolling China’s own version of democracy, described as “whole-process people’s democracy” in a recent government white paper on the subject. After the conclusion of the Hong Kong elections, the State Council released another white paper on “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.” Gary Cheung, Tony Cheung, and Jun Mai of SCMP reported on the new document and its stated goal of eventually implementing universal suffrage: 

Issued on the day after the city’s first Legislative Council election under a revamped political system imposed by Beijing, the document, titled “Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems”, is the second such white paper on Hong Kong affairs since 2014.

“The improved electoral system … ensures the sound long-term development of democracy in Hong Kong, and fosters favourable conditions necessary for the election by universal suffrage of the chief executive and the Legislative Council,” the paper stated.

“The central government will continue to develop and improve democracy in Hong Kong in line with its realities … It will work with all social groups, sectors and stakeholders towards the ultimate goal of election by universal suffrage of the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council.”

The paper noted that while Hong Kong was a special administrative region directly under the central government, the city could “develop democracy with its own characteristics in light of its actual conditions”. [Source]

Not everyone is as sanguine about the current trajectory of Hong Kong’s democracy. Outside the polling station where Chief Executive Carrie Lam cast her vote, three protesters stood with placards that read, “We want truly universal suffrage.” Echoing their dissatisfaction, a joint statement by American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his counterparts from the G7 and the EU expressed “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements” in the city. Before issuing the statement, the U.S. also sanctioned five Hong Kong-based Chinese officials for their role in eroding democracy in the city. 

The Chinese government appears undeterred. According to China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, the election was a “successful practice of democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.” Speaking to the Global Times, Carrie Lam dismissed fears of a low turnout by stating that the government’s high credibility would decrease demand for any change in elected representatives. But for many others, the election and its repudiation by the public signals the end of democracy in Hong Kong. Timothy McLaughlin, writing for The Atlantic, described how the veneer of democracy in Hong Kong’s election is being used to camouflage the city’s authoritarian turn:

What is left is “hegemonic authoritarianism,” Lee Morgenbesser, a senior politics lecturer at Griffith University, in Australia, told me. It’s a system, he said, that exists when “de facto opposition parties are banned, basic civil liberties and political rights are overtly violated, the rule of law is arbitrarily breached, and the government has monopolized access to media.” Crucially, this type of governance structure allows places like Hong Kong and other regimes, such as those in Laos and Vietnam, to keep up the veneer of democratic competition but with the preferred results all but guaranteed. “Ultimately, elections may be allowed to exist,” Morgenbesser told me, “but they cease to be an avenue for actual opposition parties to gain power.”

[…] Ka-Ming Chan, a doctoral student at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich who studies Hong Kong’s electoral systems, wrote in a recently published paper that the disqualification of candidates in the 2016 election was a “prologue to the authoritarian turn.” With the imposition of the national-security law, “candidate-filtering is much more institutionalized,” he told me. “When candidates pass through all these filters, it certainly implies that they hardly pose a threat to Beijing, for they have already obtained the blessing of the patriots’ sector.” [Source]


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