Results released on Tuesday from unofficial pro-democracy primary polls held in Hong Kong over the weekend marked a strong victory for young localist candidates looking to oppose Beijing authorities in the city.
The results come despite warnings from government officials of a potential breach of the national security law.
The primary elections were aimed at selecting democratic candidates to run in the upcoming elections for Hong Kong’s governing body, the Legislative Council (LegCo). Opposition politicians organized these polls to avoid splitting votes among opposition candidates and secure the best chance at achieving a so-called “35-plus” majority in the 70-seat council.
The turnout at the weekend polls far exceeded the organizer’s targets, attracting more than 610,000 Hong Kong voters, and sending a clear message of public opposition to Hong Kong’s pro-establishment authorities. They represent more than 13.8% of registered voters and about 35% of democractic camp supporters from last year’s elections.
Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a law scholar at the University of Hong Kong and co-organizer of the polls, said in a radio program on Monday that, “It is similar to a protest march joined by 600,000 … just that people were scattered across 240 places and gathered in different time slots, expressing their will in an ultimately peaceful and rational way.
“The significance of the turnout is beyond a primary, it involves establishing an important decision-making mechanism in civil society,” he said.
“Under the national security law [imposed on Hong Kong recently by Beijing], protest, marches and assemblies have been banned, but the people are wise and can express their views this way. So, how should [authorities] govern in future?”
Since the national security legislation came into effect, law enforcement authorities have regularly enforced bans on marches and pro-democracy rallies on the grounds of public health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the tendency for violence to emerge from larger demonstrations.
Hong Kong government officials have also issued warnings explicitly directed at the weekend primaries.
“If this so-called primary election’s purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering what they called ‘35-plus’ [lawmakers], with the objective of objecting or resisting every policy initiative of the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] government, it may fall into the category of subverting the state power – one of the four types of offences under the national security law,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Monday night.
“I am not saying [the primary] has breached [the law], but I have to put forward a warning that if that’s going to be proven to be the case, then it’s certainly a case to be answered,” she added.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong issued statements criticizing the opposition camp for following through with the event, despite warnings of a potential breach of the law. The office also endorsed a government investigation in accordance with the law, saying that besides seriously defying the current election system, the primaries also violated privacy laws due to the large amount of voter information collected at the event.
“The goal of organiser Benny Tai and the opposition camp is to seize the ruling power of Hong Kong and … carry out a Hong Kong version of ‘color revolution’,” said a spokesman for the Liaison Office in a statement on Monday night.
On Friday, the eve of the primary elections, Hong Kong police officers raided the office of an independent polling institute that was set to play a role in the weekend polls, stating they received reports that led them to suspect that private information was in danger of being leaked.
“It may be related to the relevant organization’s computer systems being attacked by unlawful means,” the police said.
However, this only raised public concerns of official interference in opposition campaigns.
Despite the massive turnout at the event, many voters are aware of the obstacles that still stand in the way of successfully voting in democratic candidates but participated regardless to grasp their last chance at speaking out against the government.
Under the new national security law, opposition candidates could be disqualified from running in elections and even jailed if they took part in protests against the government. So, even if they succeeded in the primary elections, there was a chance that the government would not let them run for office.
The current LegCo election system poses fundamental challenges for pan-democratic lawmakers as just half of the 70 seats on the council are decided by public vote. The other half are ‘functional constituencies’ which are usually decided through corporate voting, making them more likely to go to pro-establishment candidates.
“We do something not because it’s effective, or because it’ll succeed … It’s because we can’t give up on any front,” said Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist and candidate in the primary elections.
Citizens who voted in the elections stated that they also came out to show their support for the opposition camp.
“I think they will definitely be disqualified,” said Joyce Leung, a 35-year-old voter, “But I still wanted to show them that a lot of people are supporting them.”
Organizers of the weekend primaries also defended their right to hold the elections, rejecting allegations that they had infringed the national security law. Au Nok-hin, one of the event coordinators said, “We held the primary in a peaceful manner and haven’t intruded on anyone’s rights.”
Tai echoed his colleague’s statement, further encouraging the public to vote.
“It is a form of protest that is risk-less,” he said. “So why not? Why not use your vote to buy a chance?”
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