HONG KONG – Despite warnings from local officials that the Hong Kong opposition’s unofficial primary vote could be illegal under a comprehensive new security law, hundreds of thousands of people professively voted for democracy-friendly candidates for the city elections, the results released on Monday showed.
Early returnees showed that the more than 600,000 people who voted favored candidates who were prominent supporters of the months-long demonstrations that swept through the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Their decisions suggested a desire to pursue the goals of the protest movement within the government itself, but could lead to increased confrontation with the authorities, which could prevent some from running.
Hong Kong’s democracy-friendly movement has been hampered by mass arrests in protests and the new security law, which prohibits vaguely defined crimes of secession, subversion, and terrorism and is already working to suppress dissent. The only way to resist Beijing’s heightened influence over the city is to capture a majority in the legislature in September.
The obstacles are enormous. The Hong Kong electoral system has long been heavily weighted in favor of the establishment supported by the Chinese Communist Party. Pro-Beijing parties are far better funded than the opposition.
Now they have to deal with the central government’s new, far-reaching national security law, which may make it criminal to speak out against the authorities. Opposition candidates whose calls for democratic freedoms could be viewed as hostile to the ruling Chinese Communist Party fear that anyone who has protested the law may be excluded from the race or detained. Even if they had succeeded in being elected, there was no guarantee that the party would let them rule.
Proponents of the democratic camp have considered whether to rely on familiar, moderate politicians or to give up in favor of more confrontational candidates – and these disagreements threaten to share the votes.
The informal elementary school last weekend to find out who should run in September tried to avoid such a split. It was led by activists such as Joshua Wong, who led the big street demonstrations for free elections in 2014, and Ted Hui and Roy Kwong, young lawmakers who often tried to mediate between demonstrators and the police during the riots last year.
“They advocate the election of people with a strong track record in the protest movement so that they can continue the protests,” said Ma Ngok, associate professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong in China. “Those who have strong recognition in the protests stand out regardless of their parties.”
Voter turnout made up more than half of the opposition’s votes in 2016 and was many times higher than expected by the organizers. Voters went to polling stations set up on sidewalks and in unconventional locations such as a lingerie store and a converted double-decker bus.
Joyce Leung, a 35-year-old mother of two young children, said she had decided to vote for candidates who regularly took part in the protests despite being at risk of being excluded from the competition.
“I think they will definitely be disqualified,” she said on Sunday after voting in a polling station on Hong Kong Island, surrounded by apartment buildings, office towers, and cafes. “But I still wanted to show them that a lot of people support them.”
Hong Kong’s electoral system was never the same. Britain had little interest in democracy when it ruled the city, and China quickly undermined the promise that the entire legislature would be elected by maintaining the British colonial system with limited voting.
Only half of the 70 legislative seats represent geographical areas that are directly elected by voters. The other half are so-called functional constituencies, which are mostly selected by company votes and tend to go to founding candidates. This tilted system has prevented some Hong Kong residents from participating in the past.
But in November, after months of violent and sometimes violent protests against the government, large numbers of voters stood for the election of Hong Kong District Councils, a low-level office that previously received little attention. More than seven out of ten eligible voters cast ballots compared to a previous high of 47 percent – and delivered an impressive victory for the democracy-friendly camp, which held 86 percent of the seats.
This victory shocked Beijing and encouraged the demonstrators to consider the more ambitious election target for the Legislative Council, a far more powerful body. Your goal has received additional urgency than other signs of dissent have become increasingly dangerous under the new security law.
Sage Ip, a 29-year-old flight attendant who voted in Sai Ying Pun District on Sunday, said she voted in elementary school because she feared she would never get another chance. “Voting is still in our capacity. We can no longer express ourselves in protests. “
The police now regularly ban marches citing violence and corona viruses and sweep up hundreds of demonstrators in mass arrests.
“You don’t have to risk your life to vote,” said Benny Tai, law professor at the University of Hong Kong and the opposition’s leading strategist, in June. “It’s a form of protest that is actually risk-free, I would say. So why not? Why not use your voice to buy an opportunity? “
Gwyneth Ho, a 29-year-old former journalist who emerged as the leader in her district on Monday, has urged democracy-friendly supporters to continue fighting regardless of the opportunities.
“We all know we are doing something, not because it is effective or because it will work,” she called to the commuters who streamed past a busy subway station on a Wednesday late last month. “It’s because we can’t give up on any front.”
If the democracy-friendly candidates could reach a majority in the legislature, they could use their position to block the government’s agenda. Some have proposed vetoing the government’s budget, which could force the legislature to dissolve. If a new legislator also blocked the budget, the director general would be forced to step down.
Erick Tsang, the secretary for constitutional issues, pointed to such a threat when he warned last week that the primaries of the democracy-friendly camp could potentially violate articles of the new national security law against secession and subversion.
Hong Kong’s President Carrie Lam repeated Monday’s warning from Mr. Tsang that the area code’s goal of achieving a legislative majority for the Hong Kong government’s “resistance to any political initiative” could “fall into the category of undermining the state power ”according to the new security law.
The election campaign also showed cracks within the opposition movement. Some candidates who advocated more aggressive tactics refused to vote in the pre-democracy camp area code, arguing that voters could choose from a full range of candidates in September. More moderate voices have argued that voters should be strategic rather than ideological and should gather behind the candidates who are most likely to win.
A major threat threatens all plans for the democracy-friendly camp: disqualification.
In the last parliamentary elections, several candidates were not allowed to compete on questions whether they recognized Beijing’s position that Hong Kong was an “inalienable part” of China. Six who won later lost their seats because they protested China during their oath of office. This year, many opposition figures fear that election officials will also exclude candidates who have questioned the new security law.
Mr. Shum, who struggled with Ms. Ho at the street stall, said his ultimate goal was for the democracy-friendly camp to win so many seats that Beijing would be forced to take drastic measures to disqualify, for example, all elected legislators. He hoped that such extreme actions would provoke an international response to support the demonstrators.
However, others warn that a large-scale government rejection of democracy-friendly candidates could lead to an outbreak of Hong Kong.
“This time we’re talking about the possibility of getting more than half of the seats, but I think the reality is that we may not be able to vote in the election at all,” said Fernando Cheung, a seasoned opposition lawmaker who is stepping down this year .
“If that were to happen, the anger and frustration would be extreme,” he said. “I’m afraid the confrontation would be much worse.”