HONG KONG (Reuters) - Campaigners in Hong Kong have registered thousands of new voters during mass protests against controversial extradition law reform, pouncing on an opportunity to bolster the democratic opposition’s prospects in upcoming elections.
The city’s pro-democracy camp needs a strong showing in city-wide legislative polls next year to recapture a big enough bloc to veto proposals from pro-establishment rivals, who now dominate the 70-seat legislature.
A grassroots district council poll will also be held in November. That has traditionally been heavily swayed by pro-Beijing allies mobilizing supporters across the city.
Electoral rules after Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China from Britain effectively guarantee that the legislature, known as Legco, is stacked in Beijing’s favor, with only half the parliament directly elected.
But in the current controversy, public anger has centered on Beijing-backed Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her allies in trying to ram through the unpopular extradition bill, nudging many previously neutral citizens to take a stand.
“I’m not even registered because, honestly, before, I felt like they don’t need one more person,” said 24-year-old Christine Man, who filled out her first voter registration form at a rally against the extradition bill. “If all of us stand up, it is a lot.”
Demonstrations last week, marred by violence, were followed by a march on Sunday that organizers said drew nearly 2 million people opposed to the bill, which would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China.
At the Sunday march, singer and activist Denise Ho and volunteers from her NGO, Reimagine Hong Kong, collected and submitted about 3,000 voter registration forms, and handed out another 12,000. Registration drives are uncommon in Hong Kong, she said.
“For the people, this moment is very critical,” Ho told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s 18 district councils don’t formulate policy but control public spending at the local level. They are also training grounds for up-and-coming politicians, said Samson Yuen, an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University.
The district councils are dominated by pro-Beijing parties.
Winning district councils could help boost representation in the 1,200 member committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Half of Legco’s 70 seats are popularly elected and the rest are picked by business and professional groups called “functional constituencies,” which are dominated by pro-Beijing figures.
In 2016, the pan-democratic camp won 29 seats - more than enough to wield veto power - but then lost six when these candidates were disqualified after China’s national parliament ruled their oaths of office were invalid.
About 2.2 million people voted in that election, or 58 percent of total registered voters, government data show. Less than 1.5 million people, or 47 percent of registered voters, cast ballots in district council elections the year before.
The legislature “is a very important battleground for us because it’s a firewall between the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Chinese government, which is controlling everything,” Ho said, referring to the territory’s mini-constitution.
Ho, who is also an LGBT activist and staunch supporter of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, is continuing the push to enlist new voters ahead of the July 2 deadline for registration for the district council polls.
About 30 local shops have said they would offer registration forms to customers, and Reimagine Hong Kong volunteers plan to set up 12 booths around the city to try to sign up more voters.
Ho says that her star power has helped the campaign, but that drawing other entertainers into the effort has been tough because most in Hong Kong rely on the mainland market, where Ho has been banned since supporting the protests in 2014.
Most of the demonstrators have been relatively young, and youth are under-represented among the electorate, Ho said. They are also potentially sympathetic to the pro-democracy parties, while the pro-Beijing camp’s base includes more older citizens.
Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Lam, apologized this week for her government’s poor handling of the extradition controversy and said she would redouble her engagement with youths.
But critics say that is not enough and are continuing the fight.
“I’m quite sure, given what is happening right now, the pro-democracy camp will definitely have an upper hand,” Yuen said of the upcoming elections.
How big a boost the pro-democracy camp will get remains to be seen.
“This protest has been against the extradition bill. There is no political ideology or ideas of where this is going. People are not even talking about universal suffrage or resulting political reform. It’s a very defensive movement,” Yuen said.
Man, the would-be new voter, said the extradition saga has been a catalyst in her political awakening.
“I know that Hong Kong is a part of China, and I’m not saying that we should be independent. But at least we can vote for the people that we would like to speak for us,” Man said. “Carrie Lam - is she listening? I don’t think she is listening.”
Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Editing by James Pomfret and Gerry Doyle