HONG KONG — Pro-Beijing candidates swept to victory in an overhauled “patriots”-only legislative election in Hong Kong that was deemed regressive by critics, with turnout hitting a record low amid a crackdown on the city’s freedoms by China.
The turnout of 30.2% was almost half that of the previous legislative poll in 2016, with the latest results showing almost all of the seats being taken by pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates.
Some of these candidates cheered on stage at the central vote counting center and chanted “guaranteed win.”
When asked if her political party lacked a public mandate given the low turnout, Starry Lee, the head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) that won half of the directly elected seats, said the electoral revamp would improve governance.
“I do not believe this [the low turnout] is directly related to citizens not agreeing with this electoral system. I believe it needs some time for people to get adapted to this system,” she told reporters at the vote counting center.
The election — in which only candidates screened by the government as “patriots” could run — has been criticized by some activists, foreign governments and rights groups as undemocratic. Mainstream pro-democracy parties did not participate, saying they could not endorse any candidates for a poll that was undemocratic.
Most of the dozen or so candidates who called themselves moderates, including former democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung, failed to gain a seat, succumbing to pro-Beijing rivals.
“It’s not easy to push people [to vote]. I think they are feeling indifferent in the present situation,” Mr. Fung told Reuters.
Some overseas democrats, like Sunny Cheung, who moved to the United States to escape prosecution under the national security law, said most of Hong Kong had “consciously boycotted the election to express their discontent to the world.”
The previous record low for a legislative election held after the city’s 1997 return from British to Chinese rule was 43.6% in 2000.
China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, the Beijing government’s representative in the territory, gave no immediate response to Reuters questions on the result and the low turnout.
Turnout is a central issue, as observers consider it a barometer of legitimacy in an election where pro-democracy candidates are largely absent, and a crackdown under a China-imposed national security law has jailed scores of democrats who had originally wanted to run, and forced others into exile.
Under the electoral shake-up, the proportion of directly elected seats was reduced from around half to less than a quarter, or 20 seats.
Forty seats were selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, while the remaining 30 were filled by professional and business sectors such as finance and engineering, known as functional constituencies.
The turnout rate for these professional groups also fell from 74% in 2016, to 32.2%. Some sectors whose voters have traditionally been relatively pro-democracy, including education, social welfare, and law, had sharply lower turnout rates.
In 2019, the last major citywide election in Hong Kong for district councils seats, the turnout rate was 71% with around 90% of the 452 seats won by democrats.
While some observers say the low turnout could undermine the new legislature’s legitimacy, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said in a statement that the 1.3 million or so ballots cast were a “show of support for the improved electoral system.” — James Pomfret and Edmond Ng/Reuters