HONG KONG — A “patriots only” district election in Hong Kong that barred opposition democrats from the ballot sheet amid a national security squeeze had a record low voter turnout of 27.5% as many voters spurned what was seen as an undemocratic poll.
The sharp slide in turnout since the last such election in 2019 comes after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law that has been used to clamp down on dissent, and overhauled the electoral system to shut out democrats and other liberals.
“It can be seen that everyone has begun to feel that the election has no meaning,” said Lemon Wong, one of the few remaining democrats still involved in local politics.
“Even pro-establishment supporters are asking themselves why they need to vote because it’s all the same.”
The previous lowest turnout was 35.8% in 1999. Four years ago at the last such election during Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests, a record 71% turnout brought about a landslide victory for the democratic camp in a fiercely contested poll.
For this election, directly elected seats were slashed by nearly 80%, while all candidates were required to undergo national security background checks and secure nominations from two pro-government committees.
At least three pro-democracy and non pro-establishment groups, including moderates, and even some pro-Beijing figures failed to meet those thresholds.
An unprecedented electronic poll register system failure caused some disruptions and an eventual switch to a manual system, with polling times extended by 90 minutes till midnight.
The electoral commission said the extension was not linked at all to the turnout rate.
Security was tight, with more than 10,000 police officers deployed. At least six people were arrested for alleged offenses including posting online for people to cast invalid ballots, or to incite others to disrupt the polls, according to statements from the police and the city’s anti-corruption authority.
Three members of the League of Social Democrats were among those followed and arrested just before they planned to protest what they described as a “birdcage election” and a “big leap backwards” for electoral and democratic rights.
The police said in a statement the three were arrested on suspicion of attempting to “incite others” to disrupt the poll.
Hong Kong’s leader John Lee, who had sought in recent weeks to rally public support for the polls, again defended their legitimacy given the need to secure stability in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“It is the last piece of the puzzle for us to implement the principles of patriots governing Hong Kong,” Lee said after casting his vote. He added that the 2019 election had been used to sabotage governance and endanger national security.
While some Western governments have been critical of Hong Kong’s authoritarian turn under the national security law, China says it has brought stability to the financial hub after protracted pro-democracy protests in 2019.