Voter Turnout Plunges Below 30% in Hong Kong Election After Rules Shut Out Pro-Democracy Candidates

HONG KONG (AP) -- Voter turnout plunged below 30% in Hong Kong's first district council elections since new rules introduced under Beijing's guidance effectively shut out all pro-democracy candidates, setting a record low since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

According to official data on Monday, 27.5% of the city's 4.3 million registered voters cast ballots in Sunday's polls -- significantly less than the record 71.2% who participated in the last elections held at the height of anti-government protests in 2019. The pro-democracy camp won those polls in a landslide victory, in a clear rebuke of the government's handling of the protests.

Beijing loyalists are expected to take control of the district councils after Sunday's elections, with results showing big pro-government parties winning most directly elected seats.

"The newly elected district councilors come from diverse backgrounds," Hong Kong leader John Lee said. "They will make the work in the districts more multidimensional ... better aligning with the interests of the citizens."

The district councils, which primarily handle municipal matters such as organizing construction projects and public facilities, were Hong Kong's last major political bodies mostly chosen by the public.

But under new electoral rules introduced under a Beijing order that only "patriots" should administer the city, candidates must secure endorsements from at least nine members of government-appointed committees that are mostly packed with Beijing loyalists, making it virtually impossible for any pro-democracy candidates to run.

An amendment passed in July also slashed the proportion of directly elected seats from about 90% to about 20%.

Many prominent pro-democracy activists have also been arrested or have fled the territory after Beijing imposed a harsh national security law in response to the 2019 protests.

Critics say the low voter turnout reflects the public sentiment toward the "patriots" only system and the government's crackdown on dissent.

The previous record low for participation in the council elections since the handover to Chinese rule was 35.8% in 1999.

The electoral changes further narrowed political freedoms in the city, following a separate overhaul for the legislature in 2021. Following those changes, turnout in the last legislative election two years ago plunged to 30% from 58% in 2016.

Lee on Sunday said the council elections were the "last piece of the puzzle" in implementing the principle of "patriots" administering the city.

Beijing's top office for Hong Kong affairs on Monday said the council elections helped promote the "enhancement of democracy."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the Chinese government believed the newly elected members would be able to "serve as a good link" between the city's government and the people of Hong Kong.

Government officials have downplayed turnout as a measure of the overhaul's success, but stepped up efforts to promote the polls. Lee's administration held carnivals, an outdoor concert and offered free admission to some museums to encourage voting.

Kenneth Chan, professor at Hong Kong Baptist University's government and international studies department, said the low turnout was not the result of political apathy or a coordinated boycott, but rather "a widespread political disengagement by design" under the revised rules, with most people understanding that they were "disinvited."

"The record low turnout must be hugely humiliating for the government and its allies given the unprecedented propaganda campaigns and ubiquitous mobilization," he said.

John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said a turnout of about 28% indicated a "lack of legitimacy" for the elections and the new councils to some extent.

Burns anticipated the "narrow range of patriots" in the new councils were likely to consult like-minded people, and that might keep the government out of touch with people's true concerns and opinions.

"This can lead to instability," he said. "It can lead to a government not understanding people's expectations when it makes policy. The government needs the active cooperation of all citizens to implement policies."

Sunday's elections were extended by 1.5 hours because of a failure in the electronic voter registration system. Multiple politicians said the glitch would affect their chances of winning because some residents gave up voting before authorities implemented a contingency plan.

David Lok, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, refused to comment on the turnout and said it was unclear whether some voters were unable to cast ballots due to the system failure.

"I can't rule out this possibility," he said. "If they can't vote due to our errors, I feel remorseful."