Hong Kong’s ‘patriots only’ elections record lowest-ever turnout

This was the first district election since Beijing overhauled the city’s electoral system in 2021 to allow only ‘patriots’ to run.
By Taejun Kang for RFA
2023.12.10
Taipei, Taiwan
Hong Kong’s ‘patriots only’ elections record lowest-ever turnout People walk past an advertising board encouraging voting for the upcoming district council election in Hong Kong, China December 5, 2023.
Tyrone Siu/Reuters

As many voters rejected what was perceived as an undemocratic poll, voter turnout in a “patriots only” district election in Hong Kong, which excluded democratic opposition from the ballot in the midst of a national security crackdown, reached an all-time low.

Out of 4.33 million registered voters in Hong Kong (total population of 7.5 million,) 1.193 million people cast ballots, making a turnout of 27.54%, the Hong Kong Election Commission said on its website on Dec. 11

Since Hong Kong’s return to China from Britain in 1997, the lowest voter turnout recorded was 35.8% during the 1999 election. Contrastingly, the previous election, which took place in 2019 amidst a series of anti-government demonstrations, experienced an unprecedented turnout of 71%.

This was the first district election since Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2021 to allow only “patriots” to run for office.

As a result, the number of directly elected seats was reduced by approximately 80%, and all candidates had to pass national security background checks and obtain nominations from two committees that support the government.

At least three pro-democracy and non pro-establishment groups, including moderates, and even some pro-Beijing figures failed to meet those thresholds.     

Leung Kai Chi, a researcher of Hong Kong studies at the Academia Sinica, said China’s control over Hong Kong elections aligns with its broader agenda to suppress any potential for change within the city, effectively sidelining democrats and turning the elections into an exclusive competition between Beijing loyalists.

“The purpose of the elections has changed to finding capable people within the circle of Beijing loyalists,” Leung told Radio Free Asia in November. “It’s impossible for Beijing to allow the democrats any institutional platform that might give the public the chance to compare and question.”

The voting was halted at 8.12 p.m. on Dec. 10 due to a 30-minute malfunction of the electronic electoral roll system, which led the Hong Kong authorities to extend the voting hours by an additional 90 minutes.

As a result, voting, which was scheduled to begin at 8.30 a.m. and end at 10.30 p.m., continued until midnight. The final turnout was not announced until more than seven hours after polls closed.

District council elections in Hong Kong, pivotal for local governance, determine the makeup of the city’s 18 council districts. Held every four years, these elections allow citizens to directly elect councilors.

While primarily advisory, district councils focus on local issues and community welfare but lack legislative power. Their responsibilities include overseeing community activities, advising on public facilities, and managing government funds for district projects. 

Edited by Elaine Chan.

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