Hong Kong opposition primaries draw more voters than expected

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Almost 230,000 people voted on Saturday (July 11) in primaries held by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition parties, exceeding expectations for the total turnout at the two-day event, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) reported, citing organisers.

Voting at the 250 stations across the city went relatively smoothly, despite some minor scuffles, RTHK quoted organiser Au Nok Hin as saying. The opposition groups were hoping to attract at least 170,000 voters to the unofficial primaries on Saturday and Sunday, and select candidates from each district to run in September’s Legislative Council election.

On Friday, police searched the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and seized its computers, Mr Au said earlier on Saturday. They had a warrant and didn’t 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 spokesman said officers from the cyber security crime bureau conducted Friday’s search after receiving complaints from members of the public about leaked information, including that of police officers.

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.

“The primary election is our first time to let Beijing know Hong Kongers never bow down to China,” pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was cited by RTHK as saying ahead of the opening of the polls. “We urge the world to put Hong Kong under the global spotlight.”

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 organised and lawful activity,” legal scholar and organiser Benny Tai said at a briefing earlier this 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.

Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases, has also reimposed social-distancing restrictions that go into effect on 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 Mr Wong – have set up street booths in their respective districts in a last-ditch effort to secure votes ahead of the primary.

If the total voting turnout is lower than the goal of 170,000, the camp would have to regroup and discuss who to put on the ballot, Mr Tai said.

Democrats had braced themselves for further disqualifications even before the law was handed down on the last day of June, as Mrs Lam’s government and its supporters criticised activists by name for a range of actions and political views that could put potential candidates in jeopardy.

The government has blocked nine candidates from running over 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 the Legislative Council 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.”

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