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June 25, 2024

Record-Low Turnout In Hong Kong’s “Patriots Only” District Council Elections

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Dec 11, 2023

Hong Kong held local District Council elections on Sunday, December 11th, but the polls were marked by a record-low voter turnout as most pro-democracy candidates were barred from running. The restrictive new election rules, imposed by Beijing, allowed only “patriots” loyal to the Chinese government to stand for office.

Voters Largely Shun Rigged Election With Historically Low Turnout

Voter turnout plunged to only 27.5% according to Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission, by far the lowest level since local elections began in the city over 40 years ago. The previous record low, in the 2003 elections, was still over twice as high at 55%.

The paltry turnout of barely over a quarter of eligible voters is a clear sign of public discontent with the new patriots-only restrictions. Many Hong Kongers boycotted the vote in protest, refusing to participate in what they saw as a rigged election after mass disqualifications of opposition candidates.

“Most of the seats are uncontested, so few people find the election meaningful at all,” said political scientist Ma Ngok of Chinese University Hong Kong.

Additionally, 6 opposition activists were arrested over the weekend for allegedly inciting others to cast blank protest ballots, further evidence of the limited political space. The white ballots don’t count towards any candidate.

Sweeping Electoral Overhaul Enables Beijing To Screen Candidates

This election was the first held under a drastic overhaul imposed by Beijing in 2021, which gave a largely government-appointed panel power over screening candidates for patriotism and loyalty to ensure only Chinese loyalists could run.

Over a hundred of the seats were uncontested, and the vast majority went to pro-Beijing candidates approved by the new Candidate Eligibility Review Committee. The new rules also reduced direct public representation, with only around a fifth of the seats now directly elected.

Election Year Voter Turnout
2003 55.8%
2015 47%
2019 71%
2023 27.5%

As seen in this table, turnout had been increasing in recent elections, reaching a peak of 71% in 2019 when pro-democracy candidates swept to victory. But after Beijing cracked down on dissent following mass 2019 protests, authorities barred most of those opposition winners from office or jailed them.

Quiet Polls With Little Competition After Opposition Shut Out

Election day itself was exceptionally quiet, with short waits at normally packed polling locations. Since many seats had just a single candidate approved to run, the outcome in numerous districts was essentially predetermined.

There were only around 900 candidates total this year, compared to over 4,000 in the previous 2019 polls. Entire pro-democracy political parties were blocked under the new rules, leaving most races without meaningful competition between differing platforms.

“It’s just a selection, not an election,” said retiree David Chow. “It’s completely meaningless.”

technical failures also marred the election, with electronic glitches forcing officials to keep some polling stations open late. Critics called it emblematic of reduced accountability from the screening out of opposition.

Next Steps: District Councils Largely Sidelined Under Revamp

The newly elected District Councils themselves will hold limited influence going forward. In the past they controlled local community issues, but under the 2021 electoral changes they lost much of their power, now only advising the government rather than directly handling district services and affairs.

Most expect Beijing will claim the paltry turnout shows Hong Kongers support its patriots-only politics. But the boycott reveals a large segment remain deeply unhappy with eroding freedoms under tighter Chinese control. Some fear even more electoral constraints could come next for Legislative Council polls set for 2024.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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