Hong Kong opposition says almost 600,000 have voted in primaries

Voters wait in line before voting for a primary in Hong Kong, on July 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - 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 Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition parties.

More than 580,000 people voted electronically as of 9pm Sunday (July 12), more than triple the original target and amounting to over 13 per cent of registered voters, Mr Au Nok Hin, one of the organisers, said at a press briefing. Results are due on Monday.

"Hong Kong people just made a miracle by telling the world that more democratic candidates should join the elections," Mr Au said.

Opposition groups were hoping to attract at least 170,000 voters to the unofficial primaries to select district candidates for September's Legislative Council election. Mr Au said the electronic system closed at 9pm exactly but there might be some more data uploading, while some people in line before then are still waiting for a paper ballot, so the final number could still rise.

The opposition hopes to ride 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 Chief Executive Carrie Lam's agenda - and even theoretically force her to resign by rejecting her budget proposals. However, the new security law has compounded risks that the Beijing-backed government will disqualify pro-democracy candidates to keep them from winning enough seats.

Voting on Saturday at the 250 stations across the city went relatively smoothly, despite some minor scuffles, Radio Television Hong Kong quoted Mr Au as saying.

Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang on Thursday suggested that participation in the primary 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 last month advocated for the invalidation of candidates who expressed opposition toward the legislation, which is raising questions about the city's autonomy from China.

Mr Tsang said that planning and participating in primaries could violate the law's articles of secession, subversion and collusion, as well as its Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance. Though democrats refuted the government's remarks and continued canvassing support for the primary, they also worried that authorities' suggestions of illegality - and a warning that district council offices shouldn't be used as primary polling stations - 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 organized and lawful activity," legal scholar and organiser Benny Tai said at a briefing last week. He argued that the primary was not an act of "secession" or "collusion" because it didn't have an agenda to split the country and wasn't sourcing funds externally.

On Friday, police searched the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and seized its computers, Mr Au said on Saturday. They had a warrant and did not make any arrests, he said. The institute is a widely cited pollster helping the pro-democracy movement with the primaries, which a top government official has said may violate Beijing's new national security law for the city.

Voting for the primaries was delayed until noon on Saturday as a result of the raid, the organisers said. Police were seen visiting some of the polling stations. A police spokeswoman said officers from the cyber security crime bureau conducted the search after receiving complaints from members of the public about leaked information.

Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases, has also reimposed social distancing restrictions that went effect Saturday and could dissuade some residents from coming out to vote.

Pan-democrat organisers held media briefings in the past week to bolster public support and appeal for funds to cover expenses, but as of Friday had achieved only half their month-long crowd-funding goal of HK$3.5 million (S$628,000). Candidates - including pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong - have set up street booths in their respective districts in a last-ditch effort to secure votes ahead of the primary.

The government has blocked nine candidates from running because of 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."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.