HONG KONG • Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents defied concerns about social distancing and a new security law to vote in two-day primaries held by pro-democracy opposition parties.
The unofficial polls will decide the strongest pro-democracy candidates to contest Legislative Council (Legco) elections in September, when they aim to ride a wave of anti-China sentiment stirred by the law to seize control for the first time from pro-Beijing rivals.
Some 500,000 people had voted by late afternoon yesterday, in the city of 7.5 million, organisers said. The full turnout is expected to be announced this morning.
"I heard a lot of citizens were concerned about coming out to vote after the national security law legislation, but I think more people came out after the smooth operation of the first day," said co-organiser Au Nok-hin.
Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang last Thursday suggested that participation in the primaries could run afoul of the law. If convicted by the courts, violators would be barred from seeking or holding public office for an unspecified period.
Another top Hong Kong official had advocated for the invalidation of candidates who expressed opposition towards the legislation, which is raising questions about the city's autonomy from China.
Though pro-democracy activists have refuted the government's remarks and continued canvassing support for the primary, they were also worried that the authorities' suggestions of illegality would dampen voter turnout over the weekend.
"Surely that's our worry, whether the new national security law will deter people from coming out to participate in a legally organised and lawful activity," legal scholar and organiser Benny Tai said last week. He argued that the primary was not an act of "secession" or "collusion" because it did not have an agenda to split the country and was not sourcing funds externally.
While the primaries are only for the opposition camp, observers are watching the vote closely as they say the turnout will serve as a test of broader opposition to the law.
The opposition is hoping to ride on a decisive victory in last November's district council elections to secure a majority in the legislature that would give it the power to block leader Carrie Lam's agenda.
But the new security law has compounded risks that the Beijing-backed government will disqualify pro-democracy candidates to keep them from winning enough seats.
"The primary election is our first time to let Beijing know Hong Kongers never bow down to China," pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted.
Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases, has also reimposed social distancing restrictions that could dissuade some residents from coming out to vote.
"A high turnout will send a very strong signal to the international community, that we Hong Kongers never give up," said Mr Sunny Cheung, 24, one of a batch of aspiring young democrats out lobbying and giving stump speeches.
The government has blocked nine candidates from running due to their support for Hong Kong independence and self-determination since 2016, when it first took the then-unprecedented step of banning politicians from running for Legco due to their political views.
"Authorities want to use the rule of fear to suppress any different views and exactly how we can counteract the rule of fear is by doing the things we believe to be right," Mr Tai said. "The more people coming out to vote, it will give more legitimacy to the whole process."