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Hong Kong voters show defiance with turnout for opposition primary

Despite little promotion, more than 600,000 join to select legislative candidates

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong voters turned out in unexpectedly high numbers over the weekend to join a primary election to choose opposition candidates for upcoming legislative polls despite warnings from government officials and a resurgence of COVID-19.

More than 600,000 people participated in the primary, a sign of defiance amid worries about how the government may use the new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing two weeks ago to crackdown on opponents.

"[The huge turnout] is a miracle," said Benny Tai, organizer of the primary election and an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, in a radio interview. "It shows that Hong Kong people are determined to have democracy and participate in democracy. It's not just a slogan."

Results of the vote are expected later on Monday or on Tuesday.

The primary aimed to maximize the opposition's chances in the September polls under Hong Kong's complicated rules for electing legislators by focusing attention on candidates with the widest support. Some activists see potential for the opposition to win a majority of seats for the first time, a result which would boost its leverage against Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

"The number of people who turned out is very surprising, given the absence of any official resources and promotion and that it was held within such a short period of time," said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Choy described the primary as a rare chance for the public to voice opposition views in the post-security law era.

"It is impossible to participate in marches now, so many people wanted to express their demands and discontent through this primary election," he said. "I believe the primary election will make the government and pro-establishment camp more worried, as it shows that citizens' willingness to fight has not faded."

Voters turned out in sweltering heat and lined up in long queues outside of 250 polling stations across the territory. The stations -- transformed from district offices, local shops and restaurants supporting the pro-democracy movement -- were manned by thousands of volunteers.

The opposition has sometimes been weakened by divisions between established parties and older politicians on the one hand and young "localist" activists, who are more pessimistic about the potential for reform under Hong Kong's political system. 

The national security law provides criminal penalties for secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Violators could be extradited to and face life imprisonment in mainland China.

"Those who have organized, planned or participated in the primary election should be wary and avoid carelessly violating the law," Erick Tsang, the secretary for mainland and constitutional affairs, told local media before the election.

On Friday, police raided the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, a widely cited pollster which was helping with data analysis for the primary election, citing complaints about leaked personal information on police officers. The cybersecurity crime bureau seized computers from the institute and voting was delayed for three hours on Saturday as a result.

The pro-democracy camp may face more challenges ahead of the September election as possible disqualification of popular pro-democracy candidates looms. Some pro-government politicians have called for opponents of the security law to be barred from running. 

Prominent activist Joshua Wong, who was competing in the primary, was previously barred from running in district council elections last year. Nathan Law, another activist, withdrew from the primary after he fled the city because of the security law.

"The moral of the story is, if you give Hong Kong people half a chance, they will come out to demonstrate in huge numbers, in a peaceful and nonviolent way," said Emily Lau Wai-hing, a veteran pro-democracy politician.

"If Hong Kong people get the permission to march, I am certain over 1 million will turn out," she said. "Their thirst for freedom, democracy and rule of law cannot be snuffed out."

Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writers Stella Wong and Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong.

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