Explainer: Hong Kong’s electoral changes and what it means for the city’s democracy

On 11 Mar, the National People’s Congress in Beijing passed a resolution to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system – with 2,895 delegates voting in support, one abstention, and no one in opposition. 

Senior Communist Party official Zhang Xiaoming, speaking to the press having arrived for a seminar to discuss the reforms with top officials, said they were “all ears to hearing everyone’s views” on the matter.  

Pro-democracy activists and political observers have described it as a move to silence the city’s opposition under the pretense that they are not “patriotic”, and the resolution states that a candidate qualification review committee will be established to vet candidates in all elections and ensure that elected politicians are “patriots”.

What are the changes – LegCo

Summary:

  • Number of seats in LegCo will increase to 90
  • Election committee will have the power to appoint members

According to the nine article resolution, the number of seats in LegCo will increase from 70 to 90, with a portion of seats going to members appointed by the election committee. The exact composition has yet to be disclosed, but many estimate that election committee appointees will have as many as 20 to even 40 seats. All candidates will be screened by the candidate qualification review committee.

What are the changes – Chief Executive

Summary:

  • Number of seats will increase to 1,500
  • 300 additional Beijing loyalists will join the election committee
  • To stand in the election, candidates must be endorsed by at least 188 members; and receive at least 15 nominations from each sector

The election committee for the Chief Executive will see its membership increase from 1200 to 1500, with an additional 300 seats expected to go to Beijing loyalists. The exact composition has yet to be revealed. The bar for running has increased substantially as well. Previously, a candidate would only need 150 nominations, which meant anti-establishment candidates could participate in the race. But the threshold has now been raised to 188, and one also needs at least 15 nominations from each sector. 

Sole delegate to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Tam Yiu-Chung said yesterday that, “the schedule is quite tight as the government’s term is ending soon, and the Chief Executive elections are next year.”

He expects the full details of the reform to be released in May. 

A short history of elections

Hong Kong has had a very short history of democratic elections, having only held 12 since the handover. Nevertheless, voter turnout since Hong Kong’s very first election in 1998 has been steadily increasing, with the turnout peaking in the 2019 district council elections. 

This growth in political activity is also visible in the increase of registered electors, which has gone up from just 1,610,998 in 1998 (25% of the population), to 4,466,944 in 2019 (nearly 60% of the population). 

Elections generally see a fluctuation in voter turnout every few years, and this is because they are generally event-orientated, specifically to events relating to China’s control over Hong Kong.

“There is always the China factor. If you look at 2004, article 23; 2012, the anti-national education protests. 2016, of course, the rise of localism,” says Dr Malte Kaeding, a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey and former Lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

2019 elections

Voters queue to enter a polling station in the 2019 elections. PHOTO: Joshua Kwan @ USP United Social Press

While LegCo elections have generally seen a larger turnout, there was a massive increase for the 2019 District Council elections because of the protests. 

The turnout was not just a manifestation of a galvanized populace, but also a politicization of the district council election itself. During the lead-up, democratic parties announced that they would contest every seat up for election, and the position thus acquired a symbolic value. Some pro-establishment figures were also district council members themselves, and pro-democracy voters used the ballot box to air their views toward their policies and opinions.

In the end, pro-democracy candidates dominated and won 388 of 458 seats. While the work that their roles demanded were everyday district-level issues, like fixing piping or distributing resources, some used their positions to push an anti-government agenda.

For example, when district councillor for Tin Wan Tiffany Yuen tried to initiate a debate on local police and their behaviour towards the mentally incapacitated, government officials walked out in objection.

This was not an isolated incident. In August last year, a leaked government circular revealed that officials were told to walk out should district council meetings veer off topic or see members act in a way that violate the national security law. By November, government officials had walked out as many as 89 times. 

Given this context, it is no surprise that district councillors are anticipated to be stripped of their power to vote in the Chief Executive election.

What to expect next election

“There still is a substantial part of the population which is maybe indifferent to politics. Although, with the increasing turnout in district council elections, there has been a radical shift in that. People have been debating politics more widely and so this culture might be changing,” Dr Kaeding says. 

Police officers clear protestors outside the West Kowloon Magistrates Court where the trial of several pro-democracy figures is being held. PHOTO:  Jimmy Lam @ USP 社媒

But it is difficult to say what will happen in the next election. While voter registration numbers have been steadily rising, whether or not voters actually show up is another matter entirely. Pro-democracy legislators have resigned en masse from LegCo and several have been arrested for conspiring to subvert the government. And given the possibility that candidates can be disqualified on the basis of “patriotism”, as well as the changes that are being proposed to the legislature such as limiting filibusters – Dr Kaeding says it is possible that pro-democracy politicians will boycott the next election.

“A lot of people will observe whether or not it actually is still meaningful to engage in the election process. On both sides, both the voters and the politicians,” Dr Kaeding adds.

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