HONG KONG―Hong Kong’s leader on Monday hailed the outcome of a “patriots only” legislature election that saw a record low voter turnout and government loyalists sweep every seat.
The financial hub selected new lawmakers on Sunday under fresh rules imposed by Beijing that dramatically cut directly elected seats and controlled who could stand for office after huge democracy protests convulsed the city two years ago.
Figures showed just 30 percent of the electorate cast ballots, the lowest rate both of the period since the city’s 1997 handover to China and the British colonial era.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam defended the new system and played down the turnout.
“Hong Kong is now back on the right track of One Country, Two Systems,” she told reporters, naming the model China uses to give the city some autonomy from the authoritarian mainland.
“We cannot copy and paste the so-called democratic system or rules of the Western countries,” she added, arguing the new rules meant “anti-China” elements were now excluded and political calm would be restored.
When asked why only 1.3 million of the 4.5 million registered voters cast ballots, she replied: “What is the reason, I can’t analyse. You may need to turn to other opinion leaders.”
Chinese state media portrayed the elections as a glowing success.
The official Xinhua news agency said the vote had crushed “lies from external forces while demonstrating the true will of the people in the Chinese city.”
Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which answers to a Chinese government office that sets Hong Kong policy, described the vote as “the most successful one since handover”.
Lam will fly to Beijing on Monday to meet with Chinese leaders as focus shifts to whether she will get backing for a second term in March when a 1,500-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists will pick the city’s next leader.
Lam, whose public approval ratings are around 36 percent, has so far declined to say whether she will seek a second term.
Hong Kong has never been a full democracy under either colonial Britain or China, the source of years of protests.
Beijing responded to months of huge and often violent rallies in 2019 with a national security law that has criminalised much dissent and political reforms to remove anyone deemed unpatriotic.
Most of the city’s prominent democracy activists — including many former elected lawmakers — are either in jail, have fled overseas or been disqualified.
Alongside screening out “anti-China” activists, directly elected seats were slashed from half to 22 percent. The largest chunk — 40 — were picked by the 1,500 strong Election Committee.
The remaining 30 were chosen by reliably pro-Beijing committees that represent special-interest and industry groups.
Only 11 of the 153 candidates who made it through the vetting process were identified as “centrist” or “non-establishment” by local media but none won enough votes.
The result is a legislature stacked with government loyalists that resembles the Chinese mainland’s rubber stamp law-making bodies.
“The tension between the authorities and the people will remain in place for a long time while the legislators won’t be mediators because they have to toe Beijing’s line,” Chung Kim-wah, from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, told AFP.
Hong Kong and Chinese officials had called on residents to embrace their new political system.
But most Hong Kongers stayed away from polling stations, taking advantage of free public transport for the day to fill shopping malls, hiking trails and beaches.
Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, described Sunday’s turnout as “hugely embarrassing” for the government.
Turnout at the last legislature polls in 2016 was 58 percent, while the 2019 district council elections, when pro-democracy figures won a landslide, saw a record 71 percent.
Authorities recently made it illegal to organise or incite voting boycotts but many prominent democracy activists who have fled overseas issued such calls on social media.
In the run-up to Sunday, 10 people were arrested under that law, mostly for social media posts.
Authorities also issued arrest warrants for overseas activists and threatened Western media outlets with prosecution for editorials critical of the new political system.