Hong Kong is gearing up to hold its first Legislative Council (LegCo) election under a revamped “patriots only” system decreed by Beijing, after years of unprecedented turbulence since the last election in 2016.

See also: Explainer: 7 ways Beijing reduced democratic representation in Hong Kong’s elections

Democratic lawmakers have been disqualified or quit over oath-taking controversies, anti-extradition bill protests raged for months in 2019, and a Beijing-drafted national security law last year saw a major clampdown on the pro-democracy camp and civil society groups.

Legislative Council election 2021 nomination
Publicity materials for the 2021 Legislative Council election nomination period outside the government headquarters in Admiralty. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Voters on December 19 will elect 90 lawmakers from 153 candidates running in three constituencies but only 22 per cent of the legislators will be directly elected by the public from geographical constituencies compared to 50 per cent previously. Major pan-democracy groups have not put forward any candidates, with most opposition figures remaining behind bars, in self-exile or barred from running.

Know your constituency

According to the bill passed in May, while the total number of seats in LegCo increased from 70 to 90, the number of seats in geographical constituencies decreased from 35 to 20.

In the last LegCo election, the pro-democracy camp won 19 out of 35 seats in geographical constituencies. Along with 10 seats won in functional constituencies, democrats kept their power of veto over important government bills such as amendments to the Basic Law, which require votes from two-thirds of all lawmakers to pass.

The number of geographical constituencies has been increased from five to 10, a move which Ma Ngok, an assistant professor in politics, called “strange and kind of arbitrary” in an interview in April. Each district will elect two representatives.

An expanded and more powerful, mainly pro-Beijing, Election Committee will play a major role in a LegCo election for the first time, with 1,448 members, including Hong Kong deputies to the Chinese legislature, choosing 40 of the lawmakers. The committee itself was elected by just 4,389 people in September.

Election candidates taking a group photo before the 2021 Election Committee election sign on September 19, 2021.
Photo: Kyle Lam.

The remaining 30 seats will be functional constituencies, mostly specific to particular industries, trades or professions. A total of 219,254 people registered as voters in functional constituencies, compared to 4,472,863 registered voters in geographical constituencies.

Know your candidates

Candidates also had to pass a higher threshold to get approval to stand. They had to obtain at least two nominations from each of the five sectors in the Election Committee.

Even after securing at least 10 nominations, potential candidates had to be screened by the national security police, as well as by an eligibility review committee led by Chief Secretary John Lee. The decision of the committee cannot be appealed, nor can judicial reviews be filed to challenge the decision.

Major parties in the pro-democracy camp, including the Democratic Party and Civic Party, did not send any members to run in the election, despite pressure from the government and pro-Beijing figures seeking the appearance of a more credible electoral contest.

Election day

Polls will open at 8:30 a.m. and close at 10:30 p.m., giving people one hour less to cast their votes compared to previous elections.

2021 Legislative Council election priority queue
The Registration and Electoral Office hosts training sessions for electoral staff of 2021 Legislative Council General Election. Photo: GovHK.

Voters will also see a special queue for certain groups, including those aged 70 or above, people with disabilities, and pregnant women. Instead of a paper poll register, the December election will see the use of electronic poll registers and vote counting, which caused hours of delay in the Election Committee election in September.

Under the revamped electoral system, while it is not illegal to cast blank or protest votes, it is against the law to incite others to boycott the election or cast blank ballots. Three people were arrested this month by the city’s corruption watchdog for allegedly reposting an online appeal for blank ballots

An election one year late

The election for the seventh LegCo has been postponed for over a year. Originally scheduled for September 2020, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced an adjournment in July last year citing Covid-19 health concerns.

The day before the announcement was made, 12 pro-democracy candidates, including activist Joshua Wong, were disqualified from running in the election. Democrats back then hit out at the chief executive for what they said was her use of the pandemic as an excuse, but Lam denied any political motives.

Legislative Council
Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It is a really tough decision to delay the election, but we want to ensure public safety and health, and to make sure the elections are held in an open and impartial manner,” she said at the time.

In June last year the Beijing-imposed national security law came into force. Authorities praised it for restoring stability and peace to the city after the protests but democrats, civil society groups and trade partners expressed alarm at its sweeping provisions.

The pro-democracy camp had secured a political triumph before the LegCo race was adjourned, following a landslide victory in the District Council election in November 2019 as they took control over 17 out of 18 councils.

Almost two weeks before the LegCo election was delayed, democrats held an unofficial primary to choose candidates, in which over 600,000 people voted. Their aim was to win more than 35 seats in the legislature to block the budget and force Lam’s eventual resignation.

The organisers and candidates in the primary election, 47 political figures in total, were later arrested and charged in February this year under the national security law with conspiring to commit subversion. Only 14 of them have been granted bail.

Democrat primary election
People queuing up to vote in a primary election held by Hong Kong democrats. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Following the postponement of the election, the term of the sixth LegCo was extended by Beijing in August 2020 for another year.

Democrats Eddie Chu and Raymond Chan resigned, saying that they would not serve in an “appointed legislature,” while Tanya Chan left for personal reasons. Other pro-democracy figures announced in September last year that they would remain in the legislature.

But they lasted only two months. After four of their colleagues were disqualified by the government, 15 pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse in protest, rendering the legislature with virtually no opposition.

Since then, the pressure on the pro-democracy camp and civil society has intensified with numerous protesters and prominent political figures jailed or fleeing the city.

Dozens of organisations, including the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily and the organiser of the city’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigils, have folded after its leaders were charged under the security legislation.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.