Hong Kong’s local council elections drew their lowest turnout in nearly three decades, as residents snubbed a system lacking political diversity after a revamp to cement China’s control.
Only 27.5 percent of the 4.3 million eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday in the local elections, David Lok, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission said Monday morning. That was the lowest figure since the 1994 polls under then-British colonial Governor Chris Patten, the earliest for which records are available.
The turnout was a dramatic reverse from the last polls in 2019, when a record 71 percent of voters turned out and handed pro-democracy candidates a landslide victory, as a tsunami of dissatisfaction swept the city. That stunning repudiation of the Beijing-backed government came after months of increasingly violent protests seeking meaningful polls.
President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong months later that’s since been used to lock up scores of the city’s political opposition. The finance hub this year redesigned local district councils to slash the number of directly elected seats and effectively exclude pro-democracy candidates.
“The election no longer serves as a channel for citizens to speak to authority,” John Burns, emeritus professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, said before the polls. “Had authorities permitted some pan-democrats or middle-of-the-road candidates, turnout would likely increase.”
Almost all of this year’s candidates vying to become one of Hong Kong’s lowest rung of elected officials, with no lawmaking powers, were “patriots” loyal to mainland China. Contenders were required to secure endorsements from government-appointed committees that are packed with Beijing loyalists.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the elections demonstrated the “superiority” of the new district council system in a Monday statement congratulating elected councilors.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, China’s cabinet-level office overseeing the city, said the new vetting mechanism put an end to attempts by “anti-China elements” to gain political power.
Lo Kin-hei, chairperson of the city’s Democratic Party, declined to comment on the latest election, for which his party failed to get a nomination.
Voting was briefly interrupted by a computer glitch about two hours before the original closing time, prompting authorities to extend voting by 90 minutes, to midnight.
In an emotional press briefing, Lok, the Electoral Affairs Commission chairman, apologized for the system failure.
“We are very sorry that happened and we have failed all the devoted staff and voters,” Lok said, adding that he couldn’t estimate how many voters the issue might have turned away.
District councilors form the lowest level of government, with no lawmaking powers, but their election through a citywide vote means such polls have taken on greater political significance.
Authorities on Sunday arrested six people for allegedly inciting voters to refrain from voting or cast an invalid ballot, including three activists from the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats.
The activists, including chairwoman Chan Po-ying, sought to protest how the electoral revamp “deprived Hong Kong people of their right to vote and to be elected,” the group said in a statement on Facebook following their arrests.
In the election run-up, city officials rallied to get the public to the ballot box, with three regulators making a rare call for members of their industries to participate. The Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, Insurance Authority and the Accounting and Financial Reporting Council all issued statements urging members to vote.
Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. offered discounted flights from mainland China to Hong Kong for voters, while local weather reports carried a call to people to take part in the elections, and local celebrities were recruited for an official song promoting the polls.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the costs of the campaign were for the government. Chief Secretary Eric Chan told reporters Sunday that authorities hadn’t yet calculated the full cost of the voting push.
Low turnout despite the all-out push would indicate a vast majority of the public are now “outside the stadium,” Kenneth Chan, associate professor of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said before the elections.
“It’s not political apathy,” added the former lawmaker, “but a widespread political disengagement by design.”