Voting Begins In The First Major Elections In Hong Kong Since Pro-Democracy Protests

The polls opened at 07:30 local time in Hong Kong today, and will close 15 hours later. Hong Kong’s citizens are voting for members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), which is a body that passes and rejects laws, and approves the government’s budget. Today’s voting is significant as these are the first major elections in Hong Kong since the 2014 pro-democracy protests, which saw unprecedented sit-ins and marches through central Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s citizens are voting for 35 lawmakers based on geographical constituencies, and 35 representatives from functional constituencies, which represent various professional and commercial groups, such as insurance, catering and education. However, the city only has partial democracy and not everybody can vote for all the seats. The BBC reports that a pool of just 6% of the population decides 30 of the LegCo seats. The term of office for the newly elected members will begin on the first of October of this year, and will last for four years.

There are three main groups competing for seats, which include the pro-Beijing and pro-business parties, the traditional pro-democracy parties, and the more recently formed localists, who strive for democracy but, believe in a more confrontational approach with the government. Many localists, not only advocate for a higher degree of autonomy in Hong Kong but, also for its full independence from China.

The political views of the 70 LegCo members are significant as, although today’s vote does not elect the chief executive, who is the head of government, the LegCo members form part of the committee who votes for the chief executive. As a result, it is likely that the outcome of today’s vote could have a significant impact on whether China grants the current leader, CY Leung, a second term in office.

CY Leung is highly unpopular in Hong Kong among the pro-democracy groups and received an approval rating of just 19% in one survey quoted by the BBC. During the 2014 pro-democracy ‘Umbrella Revolution,’ protesters demanded his resignation and called for the right to elect a leader directly. The protests were catalysed by a decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), which concerned proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The reforms included the pre-screening of candidates for the Hong Kong chief executive election next year, by the Chinese Communist Party. Pro-democracy groups saw this as restrictive, undemocratic, and as a poor consolation to the proposed policy of ‘one person, one vote.’

Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain. Hong Kong is unique as it is governed by the principle of ‘one country, two systems,’ which gives it a high degree of autonomy from China for 50 years since the handover. This principle allows Hong Kong to have its own legal system, which protects the rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. The 2014 pro-democracy protests precipitated a rift in Hong Kong’s society, and exposed the youth of Hong Kong to political activism, and heightened their awareness of their civil rights and responsibilities.

The pro-Beijing parties in Hong Kong prioritise economic development and good relations with China over democratic reform. To a certain extent, these parties may be criticised for simply mirroring the anti-self-determination policies of Mainland China, who severely punish those who advocate for autonomy in Tibet or Xinjiang.

While the Legislative Council is supported by those who believe it helps to avoid populism, and protects Hong Kong’s business interests, it has also been condemned by those who believe it to be undemocratic. In addition to this, the true efficacy of the Legislative Council may be questioned, as the BBC reports that many opposition legislators will sometimes filibuster for long periods to try and block government proposals.

Although Hong Kong’s economic, political, and social situation are all connected to mainland China, it is yet to be seen what democracy means for Hong Kong.

Claudia Thomson