Hong Kong elections: traditional opposition parties, localists face off as more than 610,000 residents cast primary ballots

Jeffie Lam
·7-min read

Hong Kong’s traditional opposition parties made an “emergency appeal” to voters on Sunday amid fierce competition from localist challengers in a weekend primary that saw more than 610,000 residents cast ballots to determine tickets for September’s Legislative Council elections.

Long queues were already forming across the city – including in Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai, Sha Tin and Tai Po – before polling stations reopened on Sunday morning, a repeat of scenes from the day before.

According to the organisers, a total of 592,211 votes were cast via mobile app and about 21,000 paper ballots were cast in the two-day primary election.

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The figure, which far exceeded the original target of 170,000, represented more than 13.8 per cent of registered voters.

University of Hong Kong law scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who spearheaded the primary exercise, said: “Hong Kong people have worked a miracle.”

But multiple candidates from traditional pan-democratic parties, including a veteran lawmaker, found themselves in deep water as they attempted to secure support in the face of challenges from young localist rivals who have opted for more confrontational tactics against the authorities.

“The primary is a battle of different approaches. It is a question of whether we should still allow moderate and appeasing traditional pan-democrats to make up the majority in the legislature,” said student leader-turned-district councillor Lester Shum. “My answer is a resounding ‘no’.”

It is a question of whether we should still allow moderate and appeasing traditional pan-democrats to make up the majority in the legislature. My answer is a resounding ‘no’

Lester Shum, district councillor

Shum was running in the primary in hopes of vying for one of five “super seats” reserved for district councillors, for which 4 million Hongkongers without a vote in any of the city’s 28 other functional constituencies can cast their ballots in September.

By afternoon, Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan, who hopes to seek a third term in the Kowloon West constituency, was forced to make an emergency appeal to voters.

Flanked by party chairman Wu Chi-wai and colleague James To Kun-sun, who were both also seeking re-election, Wong described her situation as “dire” and called on Democrat supporters to head to the polls.

234,000 residents cast ballots on Saturday in opposition camp primary: organisers

“The Democrats’ stance has been firm in opposing the draconian laws, and we will not compromise,” she said, calling on her opponents to reject “negative campaigns”.

The primary could eliminate five of nine hopefuls in the Kowloon West constituency, as the camp hopes to consolidate its line-up with a goal of winning four of five seats in September’s general elections.

Wong argued that a wide spectrum of candidates – ranging from localist and radical to moderate and rational – had to be fielded in September to secure four seats.

Also making final pitches to voters were young Eastern district councillors Cheng Tat-hung and Lee Yue-shun of the Civic Party, running in the Hong Kong Island and the “super seat” constituencies, respectively.

People queue up to vote on Sunday in an opposition camp primary designed to winnow down their field of candidates for September’s Legco elections. Photo: Felix Wong
People queue up to vote on Sunday in an opposition camp primary designed to winnow down their field of candidates for September’s Legco elections. Photo: Felix Wong

The territory-wide primary came less than two weeks after Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on the city, which outlaws acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

In Yuen Long, Kitty Yau, a 44-year-old housewife, said fresh faces more willing to confront authorities were needed in the legislature to channel people’s views after a year of anti-government protests.

“I came from mainland China, and I fear Hong Kong will become just like the mainland one day,” said Yau, who settled in the city 20 years ago.

“I did wonder whether it would be the last time I took part in such a primary,” she said. “But I am not afraid of any ‘white terror’ as I am just exercising my rights.”

Hong Kong opposition parties warned weekend primary could break national security and election laws

A 35-year-old construction worker surnamed Cheung, who lined up with his wife and their one-year-old baby, said the government was trying to restrict residents from taking part.

“But there is nothing to fear when so many people are with you,” he said, pointing to the queue of more than 100 people at the polling station in Yuen Long.

He also said he intended to vote for new faces rather than candidates from traditional pan-democratic parties, as “the legislature has to be changed”.

In Tin Shui Wai, John Chu, a 72-year-old retiree, was among the hundreds of residents waiting to vote in a long queue that snaked its way around a public housing estate.

Hong Kong opposition camp’s lofty hopes for landmark primary run into raft of obstacles, voter turnout concerns

Chu accused Beijing of eroding the city’s freedoms by imposing the new security law. Holding back tears, he lamented how the new law had torn his family apart, prompting his son to move out of Hong Kong with his granddaughter, while convincing his daughter who lives in the United States to remain there for good. “I don’t know when they will be back,” Chu said.

Chu said he voted for a traditional pan-democrat, as he hoped lawmakers would not be too “radical” and could still negotiate with the authorities.

The opposition camp held its weekend primary to whittle down their list of Legco candidates from 52 to those with the best chance of achieving “35-plus”, their first-ever majority in the 70-seat legislature.

Residents queue to cast their ballots for their favoured opposition candidates at Hong Kong’s Scenery Court. Photo: Edmond So
Residents queue to cast their ballots for their favoured opposition candidates at Hong Kong’s Scenery Court. Photo: Edmond So

Running too many opposition candidates, they believed, would play into the hands of pro-establishment rivals by splitting the camp’s vote.

Political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, said it was too early to say whether the traditional pan-democrats had been marginalised, as they still enjoyed an edge in recognisability compared to the political novices they faced.

One potential scenario he envisioned would see primary votes concentrate on a few of the more popular localist candidates, allowing them to win alongside traditional pan-democrats.

But Ma admitted that the Civic Party, as well as smaller pan-democratic parties such as the League of Social Democrats, NeoDemocrats and the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, could suffer a greater hit than the Democratic Party amid society’s increasing polarisation.

Results from the weekend primary were expected to be announced on Monday night at the earliest.

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