Hong Kong holds first district council elections since electoral overhaul

Hong Kong holds first district council elections since electoral overhaul

Residents went to the polls on Sunday in Hong Kong's first district council elections since an electoral reform was implemented under Beijing's patriot-led leadership that effectively excluded all pro-democracy candidates.

Turnout is expected to be much lower than in the last election, which took place at the height of the 2019 anti-government protests. Some pro-democracy voters, upset by the drastic rule changes, including the elimination of most directly elected seats, are turning turning his back on the ballot box.


The eventual turnout will be a barometer of public sentiment towards the patriots-only system, the new political order under the Hong Kong government's crackdown on dissidents following the 2019 protests. The most concerted challenge to Beijing since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China promised that the semi-autonomous region could maintain its Western freedoms for 50 years under the one country, two systems framework. But that promise has become increasingly scarce after Beijing imposed a national security law that led to the arrest and silencing of many pro-democracy activists.

In 2021, the city changed its electoral laws for its legislature, drastically reducing the public's voting power and increasing the number of pro-Beijing lawmakers making decisions for the city. After the changes, the turnout rate in that year's parliamentary elections fell from 58% to 30%.

The district councils, which deal primarily with municipal affairs such as organizing construction projects and public facilities, were the last major political bodies that were largely elected by the public.

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The elections four years ago were of symbolic importance for the anti-government movement, with a record turnout of 71%. The landslide victory of the pro-democracy camp served as a rebuke to the government's handling of the 2019 protests.

But an amendment passed in July reduced the proportion of directly elected seats from around 90 percent to around 20 percent, a level even lower than when the bodies were first introduced in the 1980s under British rule. A new nomination requirement has effectively resulted in the exclusion of pro-democracy candidates from elections for the first time in about four decades.

At a polling station in the Wong Tai Sin residential area, about 30 people stood in line outside the center on Sunday morning, waiting for the doors to open at 8:30 am.

Housewife Ivy Sze, 37, said the review had not damaged her confidence in the electoral system. But she said she felt there were fewer voters in the morning than in previous elections.

There used to be a long line outside, she said, with a thank-you card from the government in hand, part of what officials called a heartwarming gesture for those who voted.

But university student Timothy Cheung, 21, decided not to vote after the rule changes, saying his colleagues also planned to abstain from voting.

It's useless even if I vote. All candidates lean to one side, he said, citing their pro-government backgrounds.

Government officials have downplayed the significance of the turnout as a measure of the overhaul's success. Minister for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said on Friday that not voting does not necessarily mean opposition to the elections, and that not participating in the elections could also be for other reasons.

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Still, Hong Kong leader John Lee and his government have stepped up efforts to drum up support for the polls. The government organized several promotional activities, including carnivals, an open-air concert and free admission to some museums.

The city's prominent airline, Cathay Pacific, also offered cheap airfares for passengers traveling from mainland China to Hong Kong, saying it wanted to help residents actively participate in the polls.

Lee said earlier this month that civil servants have a responsibility to support the government in implementing its policies, and urged them to lead by example and vote. He and his wife went to a polling station to vote on Sunday morning.

Members of the League of Social Democrats, one of the city's remaining pro-democracy political parties, planned to stage a small protest against Lee to express their dissatisfaction with the changes in electoral rules. But their members were arrested by police after being stopped and searched in Central, the group said.

Police did not immediately respond to The Associated Press' request for comment.

(Only the headline and image of this report may have been reworked by Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)