Only 15 applicants filed papers when nominations opened on Saturday for Hong Kong’s first Legislative Council poll under an electoral overhaul ordered by Beijing, less than half the number typically seen on the first day of the two-week application period.
By the end of the day, a government spokesman said five candidates had signed up to run in the 20-seat geographical constituencies. Another five registered for the functional constituencies, which have 30 seats.
The remaining five applicants signed up to vie for 40 newly created seats to be returned by a powerful 1,500-member Election Committee, a recently expanded body filled predominantly with loyalists under Beijing’s plan to ensure “patriots” govern Hong Kong.
In the 2016 Legco election, 33 hopefuls submitted applications on the first day while in 2012, 39 contenders signed up as soon as the nomination window opened.
Analysts and potential hopefuls attributed the drop to a lack of competition from the opposition, the need for the pro-establishment camp to wait for Beijing’s blessing and an extra nomination layer under the new electoral system.
“Under the past system, there used to be intense competition between the pro-establishment and opposition camps, and they would have to start their election campaign as soon as possible to increase exposure,” political commentator Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said.
But with many of the opposition camp’s leaders behind bars for alleged national security law offences and the drastic change in the electoral rules, there was “no longer such a consideration”, Lau said.
Among the high-profile hopefuls registering on Saturday was billionaire Allan Zeman, the face of the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district. He signed up for the Election Committee constituency.
Leaders of pro-establishment parties also signed up, including Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Stanley Ng Chau-pei, president of the Federation of Trade Unions, and its Kowloon East office chief Bill Tang Ka-piu.
Ng signed up for the Hong Kong East geographical constituency, while Tang registered for Kowloon East.
Lee will run in Kowloon Central, where one of two independent candidates with past ties with the pan-democratic camp, also signed up.
Ex-lawmaker Mandy Tam Heung-man, formerly a member of the Civic Party and People Power, will run in the constituency, while Fong Lung-fei, a former assistant of an opposition district councillor, threw his hat in the ring in Hong Kong West. Both are district councillors who managed to have oath-taking declarations accepted by authorities, unlike 55 opposition councillors.
The December 19 election is the first for Legco since Beijing expanded the 70-member body by 20 seats, while slashing 35 directly elected seats in the geographical constituencies to 20.
Following the changes, the Election Committee will play the biggest role, choosing 40 members in the 90-seat Legco. The other 30 will come from sector-based functional constituencies.
Hopefuls are now required to get at least two nominations from each of the five sectors in the Election Committee.
Tik Chi-yuen, who leads the centrist Third Way party, said he believed the new requirement was stopping people from acting as promptly as in the past. He said even for pro-establishment candidates it would take time to collect nominations, let alone those not in that camp. Tik said he needed to convince representatives from two more sectors before he could submit his application.
Political commentator Ivan Choy Chi-keung, from Chinese University, said some pro-establishment hopefuls might still be waiting for Beijing’s blessing.
“So until now, the hopefuls still can’t be sure whether they will run or which constituencies they will compete in,” he said.
A commentary published by Xinhua, meanwhile, said the Hong Kong administration should sincerely uphold the principle of “putting people at the centre” so all citizens would be able to “bear the fruit of economic success”.
It cited a quote often recited by President Xi Jinping: “Success may not be because of me, but I will play my part to achieve success.”
It said the national security law imposed by Beijing last year and the overhaul of the city’s electoral system helped bring stability and prosperity.
Issues that troubled residents were also concerns of the central and Hong Kong governments, and should be tackled first so the city could move on, the commentary added.
“How to utilise a set of supportive policy measures from the central government to solve old problems on the socioeconomic front will be the most urgent task for Hong Kong,” it said.
In another development, the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Saturday warned people not to incite others to cast blank votes as they would be breaking election laws with the offence warranting a maximum penalty of three years in jail and a fine of HK$200,000 (US$25,640).
Fugitive former opposition lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung suggested in a Facebook post on Friday that without the chance to protest under pandemic restrictions, casting blank votes would be “an act of defiance Hong Kong people are capable of and can practically do”.
The ICAC said the offence was not restricted to incitements made locally but also overseas.
“The ICAC will take resolute enforcement actions to combat conduct manipulating and sabotaging the election, and will request the relevant social media platforms or websites to remove illicit contents,” it said.