Historically low voter participation in district council elections following pro-patriotism reforms

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11th December 2023 – (Hong Kong)  Hong Kong’s first district council elections since Beijing imposed “patriotic” nomination rules yielded a record low voter turnout of 27.54%, down sharply from 71.23% in 2019. The lacklustre polling numbers, despite an unprecedented government campaign to mobilise voters, point to public apathy towards the revamped electoral system.

Authorities only announced the final turnout figure nearly 8 hours after voting ended Sunday night, a departure from past practice. The delay prompted speculation that the government wanted to avoid publicizing the low participation rate. The polls closed with only a 24.53% turnout based on the last update at 7.30pm. But computer failures at many polling stations later caused long lines, forcing an extension of voting hours. Ballot counting stretched into the early morning hours on Monday.

Chief Executive John Lee expressed concern about the technical issues and ordered an investigation into the cause. But he defended extending voting as a fair solution for all candidates.

Since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, previous low turnouts were 35.82% in 1999 and 38.83% in 2007. The 2019 polls amid massive protests saw record 71.23% turnout as the opposition scored a landslide victory under the old rules.

The electoral overhaul mandated the screening of candidates for “patriotism.” This excluded opposition figures, leaving only pro-establishment contenders. Critics overseas have decried the new system as rigging the outcome. But officials argued the changes were needed to end political chaos.

With no opposition running, observers focused on turnout to measure the public’s acceptance of the revamped system. The low numbers indicate lingering unease despite an establishment sweep.

Starting Sunday morning, senior officials toured polling stations to vote and urge turnout. Tycoons like Li Ka-shing’s son Richard Li Tzar-kai also participated. Care homes received subsidies to transport elderly voters.

Lee had called a high turnout essential to demonstrate the public understands district councils are now apolitical bodies focused strictly on community issues. During 2019’s unrest, opposition candidates won in a backlash against Beijing and the local government.

Election authorities dismissed suggestions they extended voting hours to boost low turnout. They said a database failure forced the move to ensure fairness across candidates.

Analysts said the peaceful election indicated most voters accepted if not welcomed the new political order. Continued efforts by patriotic groups to address livelihood issues would further consolidate public support, they believe.However, pro-democracy activists decried the absence of opposition voices as a backward step. The League of Social Democrats criticized the overhaul that barred pan-democrats from running.

Police arrested 6 for allegedly inciting invalid ballots or boycotting the polls, including 3 League members. Authorities have warned against undermining the electoral process. Observers noted high-security presence at polling stations. Besides maintaining order, anti-fraud personnel checked for potential voting violations. By the afternoon, dwindling crowds reflected public indifference towards the uncompetitive field. Some stations even saw more polling staff than voters at times.

Younger residents were notably absent in many districts, preferring to skip voting. The contest centred on community matters failed to excite them like past ideology-charged polls. Overall, Hong Kong seems resigned to centralised control over candidate vetting and restrictions on dissent under the national security law. For Beijing, the peaceful election restores stability, even with low turnout.

Regular Hong Kongers now appear more concerned with material livelihoods than politics. As long as their daily lives improve, acceptance of new political norms will keep growing.