Some legislative candidates in Hong Kong’s “all patriots” election have blamed free public transport rides and insufficient government promotion as the city is on track for the lowest election turnout yet.

As of 9.30 p.m. on Sunday, a total of 1,309,601 Hongkongers, or 29.28 per cent of registered voters – had cast they ballot in the geographical constituency of Legislative Council (LegCo) election. Candidates directly chosen by citizens make up only 20 out of the 90 new lawmakers following Beijing’s electoral revamp.

2021 LegCo Election Chan Hok-fung Ip Kwok-him Kennedy Town
Legislative candidate Lau Chan Hok-fung (centre) and pro-Beijing heavyweight Ip Kwok-him (right) in Kennedy Town. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Sunday’s hourly turnout figures suggested the city was on course for the lowest number of people voting in a legislative election, compared to the past six polls before Beijing’s sweeping changes to the city’s elections earlier this year to ensure only “patriots” hold power in the city.

Chan Hok-fung, vice-chair of the DAB party, appeared in Kennedy Town at around 5.30 p.m. to make an urgent appeal for voters to come out. The Hong Kong Island West contender told reporters that the turnout rate was “lower than expected,” despite his campaign team holding street booths and making home visits to encourage people to cast their ballots.

He said he had anticipated the turnout rate to be similar to that of 2016, when a total of 58.28 per cent of registered electors cast their votes in the last legislative poll. But the figure on late Sunday afternoon “still had a distance” from the 2016 turnout rate.

“We saw that the polling atmosphere was not very strong… the polling stations had very few people lining up,” he said.

Some of his constituents were “confused” about the new electoral rules, Chan said, with some asking him whether they should put a tick on two names on their ballot paper. Some of the people who live on the outlying islands also did not understand why they now belong to the Hong Kong Island West constituency following the electoral revamp, which redrew the voting map and reduced democratic representation.

“We had to make some effort in explaining to them, which may also affected their willingness to vote. We have tried our best in explaining [the new election rules],” he said.

Asked if the “confusion” among voters was due to the lack of election promotion by the government, Chan said people always needed time to adjust to the new changes. The electoral amendments made in May required a “larger amount of time” to adapt to, the pro-Beijing DAB politician said.

“We would put effort in explaining [to our constituents], but for the government – I think more could be done, especially on the redrawing the geographical constituencies.”

2021 LegCo Election Chan Hok-fung Kennedy Town
Legislative candidate Lau Chan Hok-fung in Kennedy Town. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Another DAB politician echoed Chan’s view that the government had not done enough in informing general voters about the new election rules. New Territories North legislative candidate Edward Lau Kwok-fan, who showed up at a footbridge near Cheung Wah Estate in Fanling at around 4pm on Sunday, said his constituency had the second lowest voter turnout across Hong Kong.

He attributed it to a change in the polling hours and the newly-defined geographical constituency boundaries under the electoral overhaul. Lau claimed some people did not know they could take part in the legislative polls. Asked what caused this, Lau said the promotion of the revamped election from the government was not sufficient.

“A lot of people still don’t know which constituency they belong to… people are not familiar with merging the ‘east’ and ‘west’ in New Territories North,” Lau said. But he said the change was a “good thing” as he can now support the Northern Metropolis development plan.

The incumbent lawmaker also told reporters he felt “nervous” about the polls, saying there have been rumours that he had already secured enough votes.

2021 LegCo Election: DAB lau kwok-fun
DAB candidate Lau Kwok-fun was canvassing in Fanling on Sunday afternoon. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“There were even phone calls purporting to be [representing me] who told people to vote for me, but gave another [candidate] number. Some also said the other candidates are also from the DAB.”

He went on to state that some of his constituents in Tin Shui Wai received campaign materials of another DAB member Holden Chow, who runs in the New Territories North West. “I’m worried that it may create confusion,” he said.

Asked if he has reported any of the irregularities he mentioned to the election authorities, Lau said he would gather all the information and file a complaint after the polls, as his team has to concentrate on campaigning.

Free transport

Local media reported on Sunday that pro-Beijing candidate Regina Ip had described her election campaign as being at “critical point” when she appealed to voters in Sunday afternoon. She said a lot of citizens visited the countryside because of the free bus rides and MTR services and did not take part in voting.

She urged people to go and vote after sightseeing.

2021 LegCo Election: New People's Party chief Regina Ip, who is running in the Hong Kong Island West district, canvassed in Aberdeen on Sunday morning.
New People’s Party chief Regina Ip, who is running in the Hong Kong Island West district, canvassed in Aberdeen on Sunday morning. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Pro-Beijing heavyweight Ip Kwok-him, who accompanied DAB vice-chief Chan to campaign in Kennedy Town, however, said the free rides did not affect polling much. The Executive Council member said people would “still come back to vote.”

2021 LegCo Election
People line up in Long Ping for busses to Tai Tong, which is known for seeing red leaves. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“The polling hours last until 10.30 p.m., they can vote if they want to vote,” Ip said.

It was “normal” to have a “relatively low turnout rate,” he said, because of the amendments made to the city’s electoral system. He also attributed the drop in the turnout to the “patriots only” nature of the election.

2021 LegCo Election Ip Kwok-him
Pro-Beijing heavyweight Ip Kwok-him of the DAB campaigns for legislative candidate Chan Hok-fung in Kennedy Town. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Some supporters of the pan-democrats may have some thoughts [on the ‘all-patriots’ poll], and so they did not come out to vote. It is expected, but this needs to change gradually.”

Less ‘yellow ribbons’

Ms Li, a resident in Fanling, held a stack of fliers as she stood next to a pull-up banner featuring New Territories North candidate Gary Zhang. She was stood near the near a polling station at S.K.H. Wing Chun Primary School.

2021 LegCo Election Gary Zhang
Ms Li campaigns for New Territories North candidate Gary Zhang. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Li said she cast her ballot at a another station in the district earlier and described the scene as quiet. She said most voters appeared to be in their 50s & 60s with very few young people. Asked about the reason, Li said: “Maybe many yellow ribbons did not go.”

Mr. Koo, 60, told HKFP that he did not vote on because of his “discontent with the gov’t.” He said “there is no need to [clarify] because everyone knows it inside.” Koo, who works in design said he had participated in every election before and was voting only for democrats.

Candidates in the New Territories North constituency include Gary Zhang, Lau Kwok-fan, Wilson Shum and Judy Tzeng. Those running in the Hong Kong Island West constituency include Regina Ip, Chan Hok-fung and Fong Lung-fei.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.