Candidates were making their final pitches to voters on Sunday afternoon, worried that a relatively low turnout would scupper their chances in the Legislative Council by-election.
The appeals came after a polling day marred early on by scuffles on the south of Hong Kong Island.
More than 2.1 million were eligible to vote in the by-election, to fill four of six seats vacated by opposition lawmakers disqualified over improper oaths of office last year.
By 3.30pm, Gary Fan Kwok-wai of the NeoDemocrats, the sole candidate endorsed by the pro-democracy camp in New Territories East, declared his campaign was in a “state of emergency”. Speaking at a rally in Fanling, he noted that the turnout in his constituency was the lowest among all three geographical constituencies. And he said the low number of votes did not bode well for his camp.
“If the turnout is less than 40 per cent, I can almost say for sure, all four candidates of the pro-democracy camp will be wiped out,” Fan said.
The pro-democracy bloc also made an emergency appeal at 5pm to mobilise support for Au Nok-hin in the Hong Kong Island constituency. Au said they found the turnout rates at some Hong Kong Island polling stations were “eight to 14 percentage points lower than those recorded at the same time during the 2016 Legislative Council general election”.
Just 15 minutes earlier, Kowloon West candidate Edward Yiu Chung-yim said he was changing his tactics in light of the low turnout and would focus on canvassing in pan-dem strongholds.
But the fraught feelings were not exclusive to the pro-democracy camp. Former pro-establishment lawmaker Tony Tse Wai-chuen, running in the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency against Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman, made an emergency appeal to voters at 3pm.
Polls were scheduled to close at 10.30pm.
The day had begun with drama, when a scuffle happened in Aberdeen at about 9am. A group of Beijing loyalists – angry men wearing sunglasses and middle-aged women in masks – surrounded Au and his team near the Aberdeen Centre housing complex.
“You are a traitor who betrayed your country! Why don’t you go to Taiwan instead?” the group shouted, with a volley of foul words, pointing their fingers at Au, who was accompanied by Occupy student leaders Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Agnes Chow Ting.
Moments earlier the same people had chanted in support of New People’s Party candidate Judy Chan Ka-pui. Chan condemned the clash, saying she hoped the election would be held in a peaceful atmosphere. New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee also condemned the “rude” actions, calling on party members and volunteers to stay calm.
A mini-rally that Au held was delayed because of the scuffles, and the group interrupted it several times.
Law, chairman of political party Demosisto and one of the disqualified legislators, said the scuffle was a sign of a degraded political environment in the city.
“What happened today has shown how the political culture in Hong Kong has deteriorated. When you try to canvass votes, a group of unknown people, who claim they support the establishment, will appear, hurl foul words at you and even attack you,” he said.
“Hongkongers should make their choice today on what they hope society will be.”
Chow mocked Chan’s election slogan, “Safeguard the rule of law, return to rationality”.
“The pro-establishment camp always said the by-election is a battle between rationality and irrationality,” Chow, who was barred from the Hong Kong Island poll, said. “It is now very clear where the rationality lies.”
A man surnamed Cho who was among the pro-Beijing group said he was not a Chan supporter, but a “patriot”.
“I can’t control myself when I see someone who advocates Hong Kong independence,” he said. Au has denied supporting a split from China.
In December the government triggered a political storm when it barred Chow, also of Demosisto, from running in the poll because the party advocates Hong Kong’s “self-determination”.
The pro-democracy bloc endorsed Au to run in her stead. Au, a Southern district councillor running as an independent, said on Sunday he was confident he could lure the island’s moderate voters.
Independent candidates Ng Dick-hay and Edward Yum Liang-hsien were also running in the constituency.
One of the constituency’s better-known voters, former city leader Tung, turned up early to make his pick, and called on the public to vote for candidates who are “constructive, pragmatic and true-heartedly serving Hong Kong”.
After casting his vote in the Hong Kong Park Sports Centre polling station at 8am, Tung said: “The era of quarrelling should be ended. Advocacies of Hong Kong independence and self-determination will cost the city a heavy toll.”
The vice-chairman of China’s top advisory body continued: “We should elect some people who are constructive, pragmatic and true-heartedly serving Hong Kong into the Legislative Council.”
But Tung’s former No 2 official, Anson Chan, rejected his assessment as she came out in support of Au.
“Hongkongers should never give up … we should vote to express our zero tolerance to the constant interventions in Hong Kong affairs and the devastating damage to the ‘one country, two systems’ principle by the local and central governments,” Chan, who was chief secretary from 1993 until she resigned during Tung’s tenure in 2001, said.
One country, two systems is the principle under which the central government runs Hong Kong, and promises it certain freedoms that mainland China does not have.
Addressing her former boss’s comments directly, Chan said: “Tung called on citizens to vote for those who genuinely work for Hong Kong. I believe voters have the wisdom to judge who truly represents the values of Hongkongers.”
As of 9.30pm, a total of 840,070 voters had cast their votes in the geographical constituency, representing an overall turnout rate of 39.97 per cent. This compared with 52.27 per cent for the same time in the 2016 general elections.
Among the three geographical constituencies, Kowloon West had the highest turnout rate of 41.45 per cent, followed by Hong Kong Island, where the turnout rate was 40.73 per cent. New Territories East had a turnout rate of 38.76 per cent.
In the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency, the turnout rate as aof 9.30pm was 65.99 per cent – 5,028 voters had voted.
At 2pm, Au said while the turnout was lower than for the general election, he was confident the rate could catch up as the margin was not very wide.
He called on city residents to cast their votes to “safeguard the rule of law in Hong Kong”.
Speaking at a rally outside Tai Wai MTR station, Bill Tang Ka-piu, the pro-establishment candidate in New Territories East, decried the pan-democrats’ filibustering.
Lai Tung-kwok, a former secretary for security who made an appearance in support of Tang, said Legco needed “pragmatic” and “honest” lawmakers.
Supported by pro-Beijing lawmakers including Alice Mak Mei-kuen and Eunice Yung Hoi-yan, Tang accused a NeoDemocrats district councillor of damaging his campaign materials in Tai Po.
Tang – a member of both the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Federation of Trade Unions – is up against the NeoDemocrats’ Gary Fan Kwok-wai in the constituency, a pan-democrat stronghold. He conceded his bloc’s standing there was dire.
“We have to admit, the situation in New Territories East has always been difficult for pro-establishment forces,” Tang said. The former lawmaker urged citizens who want change to come out to vote.
Fan said Tang’s poster allegation was an untrue smear. According to Fan, a district councillor from his party, Chow Yuen-wai, moved a tent at about 4am on Sunday. “While he was moving the tent, Bill Tang’s team ‘jumped’ him and accused him of criminal damage,” Fan said.
One local resident, surnamed Lee, said he voted for Tang. “Other political parties often filibuster in Legco,” the 71-year-old said.
Non-affiliated candidate Christine Fong Kwok-shan made an early start at Fanling at 7.30am, arriving in Tai Po before noon. Other candidates in the constituency were non-affiliated Jenny Chan Yuk-ngor, Joyce Chiu Pui-yuk and former lawmaker Wong Shing-chi.
Over in Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon West constituency, pan-democrat Claudia Mo Man-ching, localist Lau Siu-lai and Democrat Helena Wong Pik-wan arrived at about 2pm to canvass for Yiu.
“I appreciate that it’s a by-election and the turnout is not comparable to that of a general election,” Yiu said. “Let’s wait to see how it goes later in the evening.”
At a road junction, railings were festooned with flags in support of Yiu and his main rival, DAB district councillor Vincent Cheng Wing-shun. The candidates’ supporters used loud hailers to urge people to vote. The situation soon turned into a competition of loudness, each side trying to drown out the other.
Outside the polling station at the local community hall, voters started streaming in during the afternoon. One woman, Ms Chan, said she would vote for someone who could bring peace to Legco, which she said “seems to have become a circus in recent years”.
A mother of two, Ms Li, said she decided not to vote. “Whoever enters Legco, there won’t be much change,” she said. “The pan-democrats only seek to obstruct the development of Hong Kong and the pro-Beijing side only listens to Beijing. Neither side cares about Hong Kong people.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung voted at the German Swiss International School Peak Campus station and the Hong Kong Park Sports Centre station respectively. Both left without taking questions from waiting reporters.
Before Lam arrived, about 10 activists from pro-democracy party the League of Social Democrats gathered outside the station protesting against the legislators’ disqualifications, and the government’s defence of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah in a scandal over illegal structures.
A police spokesman said officers took away eight protesters from the road and put them back in the set demonstration zone, over concerns for their safety and that of other road users. He said no one was injured during the encounter and the protesters left peacefully afterwards.
Justice Barnabas Fung Wah, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, said 58 complaints had been lodged to the election watchdog by 9am on Sunday.
“Thirty-eight complaints were about display of election advertisements, and 13 were about rallies and harassment,” he said.