HONG KONG (REUTERS, AFP) - Low turnout in Hong Kong by-elections on Sunday (March 11) raised alarms in the city’s pro-democracy camp while some voters also voiced concerns over Hong Kong’s future in the wake of news that Chinese President Xi Jinping could stay in power indefinitely.
The total voter turnout stood at 39.97 per cent of the city’s 2.1 million eligible voters as of 9.30pm, an hour before the polling booths closed. The overall turnout was 52.27 per cent by this time during the 2016 general legislative election.
Fifteen candidates are running to fill four Legislative Council seats once held by pro-democracy lawmakers who were ousted from public office over invalid oaths of office.
Critics said the move was politically motivated and aimed at weakening the opposition, while the authorities blamed the lawmakers for inserting protests into their oaths of office.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp worries that if they do not recapture at least some of the seats, they will not have any veto power in the legislature.
Sunday's polls coincided with a historic vote in China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament, which removed the Chinese president’s term limits, setting the stage for President Xi to stay in office indefinitely.
That news has stoked some unease in Hong Kong, as some worry about its long-term implications given Mr Xi’s relative tough line on the freewheeling financial hub.
“There is not much freedom (under Mr Xi) and the space for expression is getting narrower for Hong Kong,” said voter Candy Chan, 24, emerging from a polling station. “While I haven’t completely lost hope, my feeling is things will gradually get worse.”
Another voter, Ms Sophia Yiu, 23, said Mr Xi “just wants to be an emperor himself”.
Others were worried about rule of law in the city.
“I want my children and grandchildren to live in a place with a fair system,” a banker who gave his name as Hong, 56, said.
Prior to Sunday's polls, several democracy activists including Agnes Chow were barred from running, drawing widespread criticism, including from the European Union.
Soon after polls opened, several men and a woman heckled Ms Chow as well as leading pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law near a polling station where they were supporting pro-democracy candidate Au Nok Hin.
One of the men barged into Wong, who led mass demonstrations in 2014 calling for greater democratic freedoms.
“Traitors and running dogs!” a man repeatedly yelled – insults commonly used by Beijing loyalists against political opponents – while others hurled obscenities.
Some democrats in the city of 7.3 million say these polls are crucial to redress the injustice of the disqualifications, and to safeguard Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy.
“If we lose today, the government and the pro-establishment forces will get their way, and we won’t see any system to speak of under the rule of Xi Jinping, who is now effectively declaring himself an emperor,” 21-year-old student democracy activist Wong wrote on his Facebook page upon news of a low turnout rate.
Even if the pro-democracy camp wins back all four seats, it faces an uphill struggle in a legislature which is only half elected, with the rest selected by traditionally pro-establishment interest groups.
Of 70 seats, the democracy camp currently holds 24, only just clinging on to the one-third needed to veto important Bills.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam voted at a school in the exclusive Peak district but declined to speak with reporters as a small group of protesters scuffled with police nearby.
Former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee Hwa said the elections were important as Hong Kong was at a “critical juncture”.
“The time for squabbling should be over,” he said, calling on voters to back those who are “constructive, practical and truly want to serve Hong Kong".