Low turnout marred the first legislative election in Hong Kong under new rules written by Beijing, which was to ensure its preferred candidates win.
Only 30 percent of registered voters or about 1,350,680 people cast their ballots on Dec. 19—almost half that of the previous legislative poll in 2016—according to Hong Kong’s top election official. Over 50 percent voted in the 2012 poll, driven by anti-Beijing sentiment.
The Sunday turnout is also the lowest since the British handed the city over to China in 1997. The previous record low for a legislative election was 43.6 percent in 2000.
Meanwhile, 2 percent of the votes in the Dec. 19 election were invalid, including blank votes—a record high, according to local media calculations.
Some said that the lack of choice in candidates dampened public enthusiasm for voting, after Beijing made electoral changes in March to secure more political power for its loyalists in Hong Kong.
Voters from the general public could directly elect 40 representatives in the 70-seat legislative council in 2012 but now can only decide 20 seats among the expanded 90-seat assembly.
As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) vetted the candidates so that only “patriots” could run, pro-democracy candidates are now largely absent. The Dec. 19 election saw Hong Kong’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, fielding no candidates for the first time since the 1997 handover.
As a result, candidates loyal to the CCP won a landslide victory.
Results came out on the morning of Dec. 20. Candidates who back the city’s current leadership and Beijing were expected to dominate the new legislature.
Most of the dozen or so candidates who called themselves moderates, including former democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung, failed to gain a seat.
London-based NGO Hong Kong Watch released a statement titled “Hong Kong’s sham elections discredited by absence of opposition,” criticizing the election as “a farce” in the city’s post-democracy era.
Johnny Patterson, Policy Director of Hong Kong Watch, said: “The Communist Party in Beijing decided that an easy way of winning the election would be to lock up the entire opposition and rig the rules. This is not a democratic vote, it is a propaganda exercise which has no legitimacy.”
Hong Kong police arrested 53 pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, and politicians on Jan. 6, in local authorities’ largest clampdown on the city’s opposition camp since the CCP’s imposed a draconian security law that penalizes vaguely-defined crimes such as subversion and secession with a maximum of life imprisonment.
Among the arrested were former lawmakers of the local Civic Party and Democratic Party, including Wu Chi-wai, James To, Andrew Wan, Lam Cheuk-ting, and Alvin Yeung.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, called the election “the culmination of a process engineered by the Chinese Communist Party” in a Dec. 19 statement.
— China Commission (@CECCgov) December 17, 2021
“The Hong Kong government should release detained candidates and heed their call for genuine universal suffrage,” the statement reads.
Authorities of the city also issued a threat earlier this month to the Wall Street Journal for allegedly inciting people to cast invalid votes in a recent editorial prior to the ballot.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was expected to travel to Beijing the same day to report on the outcome to central government leaders. She told a news conference on Monday the turnout was indeed low but that she was not able to give specific reasons for it.
“The government has not set any target for voter turnout rate, not for this election, not for previous elections,” Lam said at a polling station on the previous morning, adding that a combination of factors will affect the turnout in any election.
Reuters contributed to this report.