Hong Kong holds peaceful District Council elections under new patriotic rules

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John Lee and his wife Janet Lee Lam cast their votes at the polling station at 2 Robinson Road, Raimondi College yesterday.

11th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong held its first large-scale local elections on Sunday under new rules ensuring that only “patriots” can run for office, marking a major shift from the chaos and violence that marred the previous polls in 2019.

The election for Hong Kong’s District Councils, which advise the government on community issues, took place smoothly across the city with high turnout despite some malfunctions. Over 1 million people had voted by Sunday evening out of around 4.3 million registered voters, according to officials.

The peaceful outcome contrasted starkly with the 2019 elections, when rioters attacked residents and polling stations. This time, thousands of police were deployed to prevent disruptions. Candidates said the race was vibrant but harmonious, focused on community needs instead of political conflict.

“As we improve district governance, the purpose of the entire plan is to return the district council to its original intention,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee after casting his ballot, referring to the new patriotic rules.

Under electoral reforms mandated by Beijing, all candidates had to be screened and approved as patriotic to qualify. This barred opposition figures promoting greater democracy or independence. Critics overseas called the contest rigged, but local authorities said the changes were necessary to restore order.

With the field limited to establishment candidates, observers focused on voter turnout to gauge legitimacy. Although lower than the record 71% turnout in 2019, the early numbers exceeded expectations, analysts said. They indicated most voters accepted the new system.

“The social atmosphere in this election is completely different from that in 2019,” said former lawmaker Jasper Tsang. The peaceful climate now encourages voting, he added.

Candidates said this election focused on community issues unlike past years dominated by political ideologies. Jeff Wong, running in Hong Kong Island, said all contenders were “working hard to improve residents’ lives.” Improving rat control and adding bus routes were examples of his goals.

Businessman Sam Chan said he was happy to see diverse candidates united by patriotism and a desire to serve society. “I’m even more happy that all the candidates this time love the country and Hong Kong,” he remarked.

With competition fierce even within the pro-establishment bloc, candidates canvassed energetically to court voters. Some met on streets together despite vying for the same seat. This convivial atmosphere differed drastically from the insults and recriminations marking past polls. The outcome will shape local governance and complete the transition to “patriots administering Hong Kong,” the slogan emphasized by Beijing and Lee. The new councils are intended to focus on community issues and eschew political conflict.

Analysts cautioned not to compare turnout directly to 2019, given the different context and rules but they expected a solid result over 25% would be satisfactory. More important was enhancing governance and restoring public confidence after the upheavals, they said.

There were some glitches when electronic systems malfunctioned Sunday evening, causing long lines at some polling stations. Authorities extended voting for two extra hours to compensate. But the technical troubles appeared isolated.

Hong Kong’s new electoral system remains controversial abroad, but locals want to move on, said former civil servant Charles Choi. “Most citizens desire a stable environment to improve their livelihoods after three years of social unrest,” he remarked. “They will accept the new rules if their lives get better.” With patriotic groups now empowered to shape policy, Choi believes livelihood issues like housing affordability will gain priority. Younger candidates in this election also bode well for representing contemporary community concerns, he added. The peaceful polls indicate Hong Kong has turned the corner from instability, Choi concluded. “There is now broad acceptance that positive participation within the established system is the only viable path forward.”