Hong Kong is voting in the first legislative council election since Beijing amended the laws to reduce the number of directly-elected lawmakers and vet candidates to ensure that only those loyal to China can run.
The semi-autonomous territory was rocked by pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019 but they were crushed by security forces, followed by the imposition of a sweeping national security law that silenced most of the city’s opposition activists and led others to flee abroad.
Low turnout is widely expected and, three hours after voting began, some 416,061 registered voters, or 9.35%, had cast their ballots.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam visited a polling station on Sunday morning and said she had “no particular expectation” about the turnout.
“I would say that the government has not set any target for voter turnout rate, not for this election, not for previous elections, because there is a combination of factors that will affect the voter turnout rate in any election,” she said.
Three protesters from the League of Social Democrats staged a small demonstration across the street from the polling station, chanting “I want real universal suffrage”.
Constitutional and mainland affairs minister Erick Tsang warned foreign forces may be attempting to undermine the elections after overseas activists urged a boycott of the vote.
Under the new election laws, incitement to boycott and casting invalid votes can lead up to three years in jail and a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar (£19,360) fine.
The latest survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found 39% of respondents indicated that they are unlikely to vote.
Some 4.4 million residents are eligible to vote in the elections, which were originally scheduled to take place in September last year but were postponed with authorities citing public health risks due to the pandemic.
The decision was opposed by the pro-democracy camp, which accused the government of using the outbreak to delay the vote.
Hong Kong’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, fielded no candidates.
Heavy police presence surrounded polling stations on Sunday. Police chief Raymond Siu said about 10,000 officers would be deployed to make sure the election proceeds smoothly.
To encourage the vote, authorities offered free public transport in an unprecedented move and sent out reminder messages a day before the polls.
“Casting your vote for HK — our Home! LegCo Election is important to you and HK’s future!” the message read, referring to the Legislative Council.