Hong Kong’s local elections will be a one-horse race

No candidates from pro-democracy parties won enough nominations to get on to the ballot in any constituency

We were between races and thousands of racegoers were crowding around stalls selling beer and snacks, listening to live bands or watching a spectacular fireworks display. It was Wednesday, race night at Happy Valley racecourse in Hong Kong’s city centre, where admission was free and the seven-storey stands were packed.

Deng Xiaoping promised in 1982 that when Britain returned Hong Kong to China 15 years later “horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance”. Gambling is illegal in mainland China and the survival of racing in Hong Kong is – along with its own currency, the common law system and open access to the internet –,among the ways that the city remains very different from the rest of the country.

These distinctions feel more precious to Hong Kongers, and more vulnerable, since the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the imposition of a National Security Law (NSL) the following year. Under the NSL, hundreds of people have been arrested and detained without bail for years, as much of the independent media closed down and political opposition was all but snuffed out.

When Britain held Hong Kong as a colony, it never introduced democracy but as it prepared to hand the city back to China, it rolled out some democratic reforms. This meant that some seats in the legislative council and in district councils were directly elected, although the chief executive, or head of government, was not.


In 2021, China ordered an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” could be elected, so all candidates for the legislative council and district councils must now be vetted and approved by a government-appointed committee. Next Sunday sees the first district council elections under the new system, which has also seen the number of directly elected seats cut dramatically.

Only 88 of the 470 seats will be directly elected, with the rest chosen by 2,500 members of government-appointed committees or appointed directly by the city’s chief executive. To get on to the ballot, the 171 candidates for the 88 directly-elected seats had to win three nominations from each of three committees in their constituency: the area committee, the crime-fighting committee and the fire-safety committee.

No candidates from pro-democracy parties succeeded in winning enough nominations to get on to the ballot in any constituency. And 75 per cent of candidates for the directly-elected seats on Sunday are themselves members of the nominating committees.

At the last district council elections in 2019, turnout was a record 71.9 per cent, with almost three million people casting a vote. Pro-democracy candidates won almost 400 out of 452 directly-elected seats, gaining control of 17 out of 18 councils.

Three elderly women were handing out leaflets for the pro-establishment New People’s Party in Causeway Bay on Wednesday afternoon. But although the election is widely promoted on billboards and on the side of trams, there was little evidence of campaigning in Hong Kong this week.

Chief executive John Lee has rejected suggestions that a low turnout would cast doubt on the legitimacy of Sunday’s elections. And the government has denied reports that civil servants are being put under pressure to vote.

The authorities are making a big effort to encourage people to stay in Hong Kong for the weekend, with an “Election Fun Day” on Saturday including outdoor concerts, fun fairs and drone shows. A number of museums will offer free entry for the day and libraries and sports centres will host special events.

Hong Kong’s former chief executive Leung Chun-ying said this week that the numbers supporting pro-democracy movements had been so great that it would take time for political attitudes to change.

“I think we need to take a long-term view, and we need to sort of work on this part of the population. Hopefully, people will be more rational about Hong Kong’s relations with the rest of the country,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“When I said we should take a long view, I mean as well that we should be very careful. We shouldn’t look to change the political outlook of our people, particularly the young people, overnight. But again, I don’t think anyone out there, Beijing included, has this wish in the short term.”