Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa called on the public to vote for candidates who were “constructive, pragmatic and true-heartedly serving Hong Kong” as the Legislative Council by-election kicked off at 358 polling stations across the city at 7.30am on Sunday.
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.”
“We should elect some people who are constructive, pragmatic and true-heartedly serving Hong Kong into the Legislative Council,” Tung, the vice-chairman of China’s top advisory body, continued.
Tung appealed to residents to exercise their right to vote because “the by-election is of great importance as Hong Kong is at a critical moment”.
By 8.30am, a total of 18,214 voters of the geographical constituencies had cast their votes, bringing the cumulative turnout rate to 0.87 per cent, according to the Registration and Electoral Office.
The turnout rate of the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency was 1.42 per cent, with 108 of its 7,619 electors having voted.
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 any 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 disqualification of six lawmakers, and the government’s defence of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah in a scandal over illegal structures.
Rival political camps had ramped up efforts since Saturday to galvanise voters as pan-democrats urged supporters not to give in to frustration, while pro-establishment candidates made an emergency appeal over a “critical” situation for the city.
The two blocs made last-ditch efforts to canvass for votes, both suggesting that the relatively quiet atmosphere – which could result in a low turnout – threatened their chances of victory.
Meanwhile, in what was regarded as a show of loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping, all 36 local delegates to the national legislature opted to stay in Beijing to vote on constitutional amendments – including the contentious scrapping of the presidential term – instead of returning to Hong Kong for the by-election.
“Our situation is very critical,” Kowloon West candidate Vincent Cheng Wing-shun said. Cheng made an emergency appeal to voters on Saturday alongside two other pro-Beijing hopefuls, Judy Chan Ka-pui in the Hong Kong Island constituency and New Territories East’s Bill Tang Ka-piu.
“Many voters do not realise the importance of this election,” Cheng said.
The Sunday by-election is to fill four of the six seats vacated by opposition lawmakers, who were disqualified over improper oaths of office last year.
Last December, the government also triggered a political storm when it barred young activist Agnes Chow Ting from running in the by-election on grounds that her party, Demosisto, advocated self-determination for Hong Kong. The move was slammed by the European Union and others for tarnishing the city’s international reputation as a free and open society.
Two localist aspirants, James Chan Kwok-keung and Ventus Lau Wing-hong, were also banned from running for their earlier pro-independence remarks.
The by-election, with more than 2.1 million eligible voters, is seen as a de facto referendum to gauge Hongkongers’ stance on the banning of candidates.
Amid the largely quiet mood leading up to the by-election, the pro-democracy camp, in an outdoor rally in Tsim Sha Tsui on Saturday, called on Hongkongers to cast their votes.
“The biggest problem in Hong Kong now is that those who can distinguish right from wrong are suffering from a sense of helplessness, as they cannot stop the government from disqualifying candidates,” former Civic Party lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said.
“But Hongkongers should not feel this way … You will only feel helpless when you give up your right to vote.”
The camp endorsed former Democrat Au Nok-hin as a backup for Chow in the Hong Kong Island constituency, while NeoDemocrat Gary Fan Kwok-wai and ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim are running in New Territories East and Kowloon West respectively.
Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman is contesting the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency against former lawmaker Tony Tse Wai-chuen, the only pro-establishment candidate who did not join his camp in making an emergency appeal.
The pro-democracy camp tends to enjoy the upper hand in direct elections because of its wider support base, but observers said the unexpectedly quiet atmosphere ahead of the poll has brought uncertainty and mixed up the odds.
Meanwhile, tensions escalated in Hong Kong Island as Judy Chan from the New People’s Party filed a complaint against Au to the city’s graft-buster on Saturday. She accused him of altering her election slogan for his own use.
Au’s team used the phrase “safeguard the rule of man, return to the party spirit” on its social media platform, in what is seen as a play on Chan’s slogan “safeguard the rule of law, return to rationality”. Chan’s team argued that this misled voters and breached the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance.
Au said he was seeking legal advice on the matter and believed the saga would expose the attitude of his opponent to voters.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen denied that the government had downplayed the by-election as he called on voters to exercise their civil rights on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung