Hongkongers trickled into polling stations for the city’s first “patriots only” legislative elections on Sunday morning, a race notably more subdued when compared to years past.
Over 10,000 police officers were deployed across Hong Kong to ensure order at the polls, the first since Beijing’s sweeping electoral overhaul in May dramatically cut democratic representation in the elections.
A spokesperson for the Registration and Electoral Office (REO) said at around 9:30 a.m. – an hour after polls opened, that the display on a government website of expected queuing times at polling stations was out of service due to “excessive usage.”
Polls will close at 10:30 pm on Sunday.
‘Multicolour to monochrome’
The pro-democracy League of Social Democrats (LSD) staged a small demonstration on Sunday morning in Mid-Levels, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam cast her vote at a polling station nearby.
Chanting slogans including “I want universal suffrage” and “the more we are silenced, the more we must raise our voice,” the party criticised the electoral revamp and called on the public to vote “with their conscience.”
“We are protesting against [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam for destroying our electoral system using under the guise of improving the election, but in reality, completely depriving the voting rights of Hong Kong people,” said Chan Po-ying, chairperson of the LSD.
LSD’s deputy chairperson Dickson Chau held up a small banner with a row of Mahjong tiles from the same suite to symbolise how, without politicians from opposition parties, the Legislative Council would be turning from “multicolour to monochrome.”
‘Vote of confidence’ for Hong Kong’s future
At the Raimondi College polling station, Lam cast her ballot in front of reporters and called it a “vote of confidence” for Hong Kong’s new electoral system, and for the city’s future.
Appealing to registered voters to come out and vote, Lam denied that the legislature would be “monochrome.”
“Our administration is very happy to listen to different voices. The aim is to govern well and do practical things for Hong Kong,” Lam said.
Amid expectations of a low turnout, the government’s Registration and Electoral Office sent mass messages on Saturday reminding Hongkongers to cast their vote.
Authorities also said most public transportation, including the MTR, trams and buses, will be free on election day to encourage voting – even though most of the 630 polling stations set up around the city are within walking distance of housing estates and residences.
Under Beijing’s revamp, the number of seats in the Legislative Council increased from 70 to 90, but only 20 seats – belonging to the geographical constituencies – will be directly elected by the public compared to 35 previously.
The Election Committee, stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, will vote for 40 members. The remaining 30 seats will be polled in close-circle elections by registered voters in special interest groups known as functional constituencies, such as the finance, tourism and education constituencies.
Traditional opposition parties have not entered any members in the race. Most prominent democrats are either on remand, already sentenced to jail, in self-imposed exile or resigned from politics for good.
Arrest warrants issued
Sunday’s elections are taking place against the backdrop of arrests and prosecutions over calls for Hongkongers to protest the elections by boycotting or casting blank votes.
Five activists, all of them in self-exile abroad, were dealt arrest warrants by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Saturday after they issued social media posts urging Hong Kong people not to vote in the race.
“The ICAC will continue to take resolute enforcement actions to combat conduct manipulating or undermining the election to ensure that it will be held in a fair and just manner,” the anti-corruption agency wrote in a statement.
Among the group who are wanted are Nathan Law, who was granted political asylum in the UK earlier this year, and activist Sunny Cheung, who is in the US. Two other self-exiled democrats, ex-lawmaker Ted Hui and former district councillor Yau Man-chun, were issued arrest warrants last month over the same offence.
The city amended its election laws in May, making it illegal to incite the casting of invalid votes and obstruct others from voting.
10 others in Hong Kong have been arrested over the act, two of whom were charged on Wednesday.
Separately, police arrested a 35-year-old man on Saturday on suspicion of making social media posts to incite others to carry out “lone wolf attacks” on police officers and poll station workers.
“We strongly condemn anybody who abuses the internet to incite others to take part in illegal acts,” said Chief Inspector Tai Tze-bun of the cyber security and technology crime bureau. “The internet is not a lawless world.”
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Erick Tsang, said during an interview with RTHK on Saturday that the government does not have a target turnout in mind for the elections.
His statement comes after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam told the state-run Global Times that a low turnout could mean that the public is satisfied with the city’s leadership because “the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government.”
Surveys conducted by pollster Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute suggest that the turnout will likely be a historical low.
Tsang also told RTHK that foreign media outlets were “slandering” the elections and calling on Hong Kong people to hand in spoiled ballots. “This completely violates the media’s principle of professionalism and objectivity,” the official said without naming any specific news organisations.
Earlier this month, Tsang threatened the Wall Street Journal over an editorial it published about the elections, accusing the newspaper of making “baseless assumptions.”
Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.