Can Hong Kong’s John Lee drum up a battle of the ballots for the district council election on December 10?

The election is the first since the municipal-level polls were overhauled in line with Beijing’s principle that only “patriots” should be in charge, and there have been reports of voter indifference.

Hong Kong to host large events to convince voters to stay for district poll

A check by the Post found 14 officials with Facebook accounts who have actively posted about the election, with more than 60 posts so far, telling Hongkongers about voting procedures and the significance of taking part.

Even the computer screen savers of public servants have all been changed to a message reminding them to go out and vote.

Observers said the big drive by the administration reflected its deep concern over a possible low turnout, but they questioned whether the publicity would generate votes.

“The scale of promotion is the most remarkable among all elections held since the city’s handover,” said political commentator Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, author of the book, The Politics of District Elections and Administration in Hong Kong.

“On the surface, the government says the voting rate is not important, but in fact, what it is doing is obviously all about boosting the turnout. After all, the turnout rate reflects the election’s legitimacy to a certain degree.”

The government has recently ramped up efforts to get voters out and casting their ballots on election day. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

With the revamp, the proportion of directly elected councillors has been slashed from almost 95 per cent previously to under a fifth of 470 seats.

That leaves about 4.33 million voters to choose 88 winners from 171 candidates in 44 enlarged geographical constituencies, with no opposition hopefuls cleared to run.

Most of the new district councillors will be appointed by the city leader or chosen by 2,490 members of three district committees.

After the new electoral system came into effect in July, several ministers downplayed the importance of the turnout rate, saying it could be affected by various factors, even the weather, and the government had no specific target.

But their tone changed recently. For example, Chief Secretary Eric Chan Kwok-ki said in a televised interview last week that it would be a pity if the turnout was low, as some might ask if the elected councillors really represented their constituents.

‘4,500 Hongkongers sign up to vote’ at sites near border ahead of district poll

Asked how much public money had been spent to publicise the election, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said only that it would be more than the HK$100 million (US$12.8 million) spent on the 2021 Legislative Council polls and declined to reveal a breakdown.

The Legco polls – the first following the “patriots-only” electoral overhaul – logged a record low turnout of 30.2 per cent.

Associate Professor Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, of Baptist University’s department of government and international studies, said local authorities’ promotion efforts for the polls indicated a top-down mobilisation strategy to “circle the square”.

“With public money spent, the government is accountable to both the city and Beijing, and that explains their heightened concern over the voter turnout,” said the former lawmaker.

But he doubted if the money spent would translate into actual votes, citing overseas examples in which “a non-democratic poll” often failed to attract voters without incentives, including cash handouts.

He said the government should be more transparent in revealing how much was being spent on the publicity drive.

Non-establishment lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen says he will ask the government for a breakdown of expenses and its justification for the “tsunami-style” promotion efforts after the polls. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

The city’s only non-establishment lawmaker, Tik Chi-yuen, said he would ask the government for a breakdown of expenses and its justification for the “tsunami-style” promotion efforts after the polls.

Aside from the government efforts, some pro-Beijing organisations have held lucky draws to encourage voters to cast their ballot. For the first time, flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways has offered discounted fares for voters in mainland China to return for the election.

Emeritus Professor John Burns, of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said such extensive publicity drives only generated more votes in “competitive races”.

“Real competition based on competing policy platforms in elections that have consequences for people’s lives tends to increase voter turnout,” he said. “These elements are mostly absent from our December 10 district council elections.”

Unlucky Hong Kong district poll candidates ‘not in the running for appointed seats’

Former journalist Julian Law Wing-chung, who managed the chief executive election campaign for former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in 2017, also doubted that the government campaign would move voters.

“Most Hongkongers are clueless about whom to vote for, given so many new but hard-to-differentiate faces in expanded constituencies,” he said. “So the money spent in promotion might not help the government to achieve what it wants for the turnout rate.”

Additional reporting by Harvey Kong


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