Record low turnout expected in first Hong Kong election under Beijing's rules

Authorities are arresting people for calling on others to cast blank ballots in protest at rule changes.
By Cheng Yut Yiu
Record low turnout expected in first Hong Kong election under Beijing's rules A campaign worker distributes leaflets of Legislative Council candidate Marcus Liu ahead of the Dec. 19 election in Hong Kong, Dec. 17, 2021.

Voters look set to stay away from the weekend's legislative elections in Hong Kong in record numbers, despite wall-to-wall government propaganda urging them to cast their ballot under new rules that effectively bar pro-democracy candidates from standing.

Just 34 percent of people contacted in an opinion poll last week by the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) said they would definitely cast a ballot, while 17 percent said they "probably" would.

Given the typical disparity between stated intentions and actual turnout, pollsters said the projected turnout on Sunday was 24 percent of registered voters, which would mean the lowest participation rate in 30 years.

Eleven percent of the 861 Cantonese-speaking registered electors told a telephone survey they probably wouldn't vote, while 22 percent said they definitely wouldn't and 16 percent either didn't know or hadn't decided.

A separate survey found that few people are tuning in to reports from election forums, where candidates debate and lay out their platforms in front of potential voters.

Among pro-democracy camp voters, 76 percent said they rarely or never follow such reports, while 42 percent of non-democrats said the same thing, the "We HongKongers" Panel Survey found.

Politics professor Kenneth Chan, a member of the Election Observation Project, said the fact that opinion poll respondents typically try to sound more positive usually skews voting intention statistics, with actual turnout usually lower on the day.

As well as election forums, street stalls, leafleting and messaging campaigns from candidates, all of whom have been approved as "patriots" by a Beijing-backed committee that consults with national security police, voters have been bombarded in recent weeks by government banners, television advertisements and other media calling on them to vote.

"This vote brings in the era of patriots ruling Hong Kong," one government film proclaims. "This will bring bright prospects, prosperity and stability for the future."

Meanwhile, home affairs secretary Caspar Tsui has been dressing up as a candidate in social media profile photos and posters to urge people to vote on Sunday.

But more than 60 percent of respondents in recent polls said the government's attempts to get them to take part hadn't affected their intentions either way.

Former lawmakers await trial

The Dec. 19 poll to select candidates in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) comes as 47 former opposition lawmakers and pro-democracy activists await trial under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.

They are charged with "subversion" after taking part in an unofficial democratic primary aimed at maximizing the number of opposition seats in LegCo, after which the government postponed the election and rewrote the rules to ensure that no candidate can stand without passing a complex approval process decided by the government, representatives of the CCP and the national security police.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has tried to explain the projected low turnout rates as a measure of satisfaction with her government.

"Turnout can be affected by many different factors," Lam told reporters recently. "Turnout can be low if the government is doing a good job and there is a high level of public trust, because people don't feel they need to elect legislators to keep an eye on them."

"So I don't think these turnout projections mean very much."

Chan said the government is doing the necessary public relations work to manage expectations ahead of time.

"They have to come up with a reason just in case the turnout is less than they had hoped," he said. "They are doing some expectation management, preparing for the aftermath."

Turnout important to Beijing

Current affairs commentator To Yiu-ming agreed, adding that CCP official Xia Baolong, who heads the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office under China's State Council, is likely more concerned with ensuring a compliant LegCo, but that turnout is still important to Beijing.

"They aren't afraid to use the ICAC to intervene to stop troublesome people from calling for blank ballots, so it's clear they are under heavy pressure," To wrote in a recent commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service.

"If turnout comes under under 50 percent ... then the conclusion will be that Hong Kong officials and pro-Beijing politicians aren't doing their jobs properly," he said.

"So Hong Kong officials ... are working hard to find excuses."

Ten people have been arrested and at least two people have been charged by the ICAC for "inciting" others to cast blank ballots in protest at the changes to electoral rules, which were strongly criticized by Britain this week as being in breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration governing the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss said in a six-monthly report on Hong Kong this week that the recent changes "mean that parties not closely aligned with ... mainland [China] or that are not pro-establishment will be excluded almost entirely from the legislature."

PORI deputy chief executive Chung Kim-Wah told reporters said the organization could now face investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) after tip-offs from the public that asking people their voting intentions could break electoral law, and possibly even the national security law.

"Things are definitely on the move against us," he told a news conference announcing the poll results on Friday.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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