Hong Kong Election Sparks Controversy as Turnout Plunges

Record-breaking low turnout . . .

Pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates won a crushing victory in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) election on Sunday, taking 82 of the 90 seats. This was the first election since Beijing implemented the National Security Law in mid-2020 and revamped the city’s electoral rules in March to ensure that only ‘patriots’ can run for election. Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam had postponed the election for over a year, citing pandemic-related concerns. Opposition activists have balked at the legitimacy of the election, pointing to the fact that it had the lowest voter turnout – just 30.2 per cent – of all city-wide elections in Hong Kong’s history. They also charged that the election's delay was politically driven to buy Beijing time to contain the number of pro-democracy candidates running.

Democracy with ‘Hong Kong characteristics’?

Carrie Lam did not appear concerned about the low turnout, telling reporters that there was no set voter target and speculating that low turnout could be a sign of government support. But for many analysts, the low turnout speaks to a combination of voter apathy and an attempt to boycott what many Hongkongers saw as a sham election following the new electoral rules and a series of crackdowns. In particular, since late 2019, numerous pro-democracy activists, legislators, and electoral candidates have been jailed or sought asylumin other countries. The National Security Law and the electoral reforms granted Beijing the power to weed out candidates it deemed insufficiently supportive. The electoral system, meanwhile, was changed to reduce the number of directly elected seats (‘Geographical Constituency’ seats) from 35 to 20. Of the remaining 70 seats, 30 are elected by companies and organizations (‘Functional Constituency’ seats) that tend to be pro-establishment, and 40 by an election committee mainly comprising pro-Beijing elites.

International responses . . .

Along with fellow foreign ministers of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance, Canada issued a joint statement condemning the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong’s tightly-vetted election. The Group of Seven and the EU also expressed concern about the elections. In response, China defended Hong Kong’s new electoral system, issuing a White Paper highlighting Beijing’s contributions to the city’s long-term stability and urging foreign countries to stop meddling with the state’s internal affairs. For its part, the U.S. imposed sanctions on five additional Chinese individuals under its Hong Kong Autonomy Act on the day after the election. Whether Hong Kong’s controversial election results will prompt further rounds of Western sanctions (like the diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Olympics over human rights abuses in Xinjiang) or spark additional Chinese policies to increase Beijing’s control over the territory remains uncertain.