Voter turnout in Hong Kong sank to 30% Sunday in the first legislative election since Beijing amended the laws to reduce the number of directly elected lawmakers and vet candidates to ensure that only those loyal to China could run.
The semi-autonomous territory was rocked by pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019 that were followed by the imposition of a sweeping national security law that silenced most of the city’s opposition activists and led others to flee abroad.
Barnabas Fung, the chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, announced that about 1,350,680 people, or about 30.2% of registered voters, had cast ballots. More than 50% voted in the two previous polls in 2012 and 2016.
Results were being announced Monday morning. Candidates who back the city's current leadership and Beijing were expected to dominate the new legislature.
Warton Leung, who did not intend to vote in Sunday's election, said that the lack of choice in candidates dampened enthusiasm for voting.
“Although there is a chance to vote for pro-establishment and democracy candidates, there are few democratic choices, so Hong Kong people do not feel enthusiastic when it comes to voting,” he said.
Others, such as Yu Wai-kwan, saw the election as a chance to vote for a better Hong Kong.
“I am voting to choose a new bunch of people to make Hong Kong a better place,” Yu said. "I am a patriot, and I just hope for peace and quiet, and to have a good livelihood.”
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam visited a polling station Sunday morning and said she had “no particular expectation” about the turnout.
“I would say that the government has not set any target for voter turnout rate, not for this election, not for previous elections, because there is a combination of factors that will affect the voter turnout rate in any election,” she said.
Following the close of voting, Lam issued a statement saying the “improved" electoral system had worked as intended.
“The polls today were conducted in an open, fair and honest manner and the overall process was generally smooth," Lam's statement said.
Final results were expected later Monday, and Lam was expected to travel to Beijing the same day to report on the outcome to central government leaders.
Three protesters from the League of Social Democrats staged a small demonstration across the street from a polling station Sunday morning, chanting “I want real universal suffrage.”
Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Minister Erick Tsang warned that foreign forces may be attempting to undermine the elections after overseas activists urged a boycott of the vote. Under the new election laws, incitement to boycott and casting invalid votes can lead to up to three years in jail and a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar (€22,800) fine.
Some 4.4 million residents were eligible to vote. The elections were originally scheduled to take place in September last year, but were postponed with authorities citing public health risks due to the pandemic. The decision was opposed by the pro-democracy camp, which accused the government of using the outbreak to delay the vote.
Hong Kong’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, fielded no candidates.
Britain's Foreign Affairs Minister, Liz Truss, said on Monday morning that the "electoral overhaul and the National Security Law has wiped out opposition voices in Hong Kong and is an affront to liberty."
She demanded Beijing "abide by the Sino-British Joint Declaration it agreed" which guaranteed Hong Kong's self-governance.
**Watch the full interview with Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, in the video player above. **
Heavy police presence surrounded polling stations Sunday. Police chief Raymond Siu said about 10,000 officers would be deployed to make sure the election proceeded smoothly.
To encourage the vote, authorities offered free public transport in an unprecedented move, and sent out reminder messages a day before the polls.
“Casting your vote for HK — our Home! LegCo Election is important to you and HK’s future!” the message read, referring to the Legislative Council.
The rubber-stamp Chinese parliament in March passed a resolution to alter Hong Kong’s election law that many saw as effectively ending the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was to retain its separate legal, political and financial institutions for 50 years following the handover from Britain in 1997.
The assembly voted to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, reducing the proportion of those directly elected and ensuring that only those loyal to Beijing are allowed to run for office.
The move expanded the size of the chamber from 70 to 90 seats, with members of the Election Committee, a strongly pro-Beijing body responsible for electing the chief executive, comprising 40 of those. Another 30 seats are elected by business groupings known as “functional constituencies.” The number of directly elected representatives was reduced from 35 to 20. Five seats elected from among district councillors were abolished altogether.