Vote restricts residents to choosing between Beijing loyalists after pro-democracy camp scored landslide win in 2019.
Hong Kong has begun voting in its first “patriots only” district council election following an electoral overhaul that made it all but impossible for pro-democracy candidates to get on the ballot.
Sunday’s vote, which restricts residents to choosing between hand-picked Beijing loyalists, comes after Hong Kongers delivered pro-democracy candidates their biggest win in the Chinese-ruled city’s history during the last district election in 2019.
The pro-democracy landslide, following a record 71 percent turnout, was seen as an embarrassing blow to Chinese and Hong Kong authorities after months of anti-government mass protests.
Under the revised electoral system announced in May, just 88 out of 470 seats will be directly elected and candidates must be approved by government-appointed committees.
More than 70 percent of the candidates for directly elected seats are themselves members of the vetting committees.
The Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s biggest opposition party, failed to secure nominations for any of its candidates, while centrists and even pro-establishment moderates have complained of being shut out by the new rules.
The electoral overhaul followed the passage of a draconian national security law in 2020 that has all but wiped out democratic activism in the former British colony, which is supposed to enjoy freedoms not found in mainland China under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.
Despite insisting that turnout will not determine the success of the election, Hong Kong officials have attempted to generate enthusiasm among the public, organising free concerts and fun fairs, waiving museum entry fees, putting up posters and offering community centres payments to encourage the elderly to vote.
Authorities have warned against any attempt to undermine the poll, reportedly deploying more than 12,000 police officers around the city.
Three members of the League of Social Democrats, a social democratic party, were arrested on Sunday afterannouncing plans to stage a protest outside the polling station used by Hong Kong leader John Lee, the party said.
On Friday, national security police arrested a 77-year-old man on suspicion of preparing to carry out sedition over a reported plan to protest the election.
Earlier this week, authorities charged a 38-year-old man for allegedly reposting a video of an overseas commentator calling for a boycott and issued an arrest warrant for a Germany-based activist accused of encouraging people not to vote.
Many Hong Kongers have nonetheless expressed apathy about the vote given its tenuous connection to public sentiment.
Voter turnout as of 10:30am (2:30 GMT) was a little higher than 6 percent, according to the Hong Kong Information Services Department – far below 2019 levels.
Turnout for the last election to fill the more powerful Legislative Council, in 2021, was just over 30 percent, down from 58 percent under more democratic rules in place during the 2016 poll.
Finn Lau, a Hong Kong democracy activist based in the United Kingdom, described the latest district council vote as “pointless”.
“It is a complete joke. It is pointless to vote in such a fully controlled, gamed system devised by the Beijing regime and Hong Kong authorities,” Lau told Al Jazeera.
“It is totally pointless because they are trying to use this so-called election to build their legitimacy for their autocratic acts as well as the suppression of civil liberties, destruction of rule of law and the international promises under the Sino-British joint declaration.”