Turnout low in Hong Kong’s ‘patriots only’ election

Critics say electoral overhaul has turned poll into a selection and the legislature into a puppet

Hong Kong government efforts and last-ditch campaigning by candidates were struggling on Sunday to boost turnout in an overhauled “patriots”-only legislative election, the first under a sweeping new security law.

After eight hours of voting, turnout was more than 10 percentage points below the previous legislative council election five years ago.

The election – in which only candidates screened by the government as “patriots” can run – has been criticised by some activists, foreign governments and rights groups while mainstream pro-democracy parties are not participating.

Turnout is a central issue, as observers consider it a barometer of legitimacy in an election where pro-democracy candidates are largely absent, more than a third of the seats will be selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists and a crackdown under a China-imposed national security law has jailed scores of democrats. Civil society groups have disbanded.


“Clearly, the government’s objective is to secure a high turnout. Otherwise it may delegitimise this election,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

The government on Saturday sent blanket text messages to Hong Kong residents urging people to vote, and some critics calling on people to stay away as a protest. It is a crime in Hong Kong to incite someone not to vote or to cast an invalid vote.

Hong Kong leaders say the poll is representative. They insist the overhaul, like the security law imposed last year, was needed to ensure stability after protracted protests that rocked the Asian financial hub in 2019.

Security was tight around the city, with 10,000 police and some 40,000 government election workers deployed.

After eight hours of voting, official figures showed 21.02 per cent of the electorate had voted, down from 31.16 per cent at the same point in 2016. That previous turnout ended up at 58 per cent, while the 43.6 per cent in 2000 was the lowest since Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.

Shortly before casting her ballot, university language teacher Tam Po-chu, 79, said the vote would promote stability and she hoped the new council would be responsive to the public. “There’s no use if they do not think of the Hong Kong people,” she said.

Chief Secretary John Lee, a former security chief, urged people to turn out, saying those excluded were “traitors” who wanted the vote to fail.

By mid-afternoon volunteers were still pressing flyers on passersby near quiet polling booths, lampposts festooned with flags.

“The situation is critical,” Starry Lee, the head of the largest pro-Beijing party DAB said in a recorded loop played on a loudspeaker in the working class Wong Tai Sin district. “I urge everyone to vote.”Lee’s appeal did not convince local fruit seller Jack Ng, who said he would not join an election that was neither fair nor democratic. “I don’t understand why she is campaigning. She will win for sure, it is absurd,” said Ng, who is in his 20s.

Others who said they would not vote expressed anger at the changes that some said had turned the poll into a “selection” and the legislature into a “puppet”. – Reuters