Millions of Hong Kongers go to the polls Sunday to elect the city’s parliament… sort of.
The Legislative Council, or LegCo, election is easily one of the world’s strangest.
It includes three different types of seat, multiple voting systems, banks voting as people, races confined to only a few dozen potential candidates, and that’s before anyone has even started campaigning.
Here’s what you need to know to make sense of it all.
Founded in 1843 as an advisory body to Hong Kong’s colonial British governor, LegCo now functions as the city’s parliament, scrutinizing bills and spending, approving appointments and passing laws.
The council, which did not get its first Chinese member until 1884, has been fully elected since 1995, though some seats are chosen in ways that critics say aren’t democratic (see below.)
Since the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997, LegCo has been largely dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, thanks both to the electoral success of parties such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the existence of functional constituencies, political entities unique to Hong Kong and Macau.
What are functional constituencies?
Functional constituencies (FCs), first introduced in 1991, are designed to encourage the “balanced participation of all sectors and groups” in society, according to the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, and make up around half of LegCo’s 70 seats.
Today, FCs include those for the Insurance, Tourism, and Textiles and Garment industries, as well as 25 other business or special interest groups.
Electors in those groups choose candidates via three different voting systems, including proportional representation and the UK-style first-past-the-post system.
The total electorate for the FCs is less than 240,000 electors (who can be individuals, businesses or corporate entities such as banks), compared to the more than 3 million voters who choose the 35 LegCo members elected by direct democracy.
This results in a system where 95,776 voters in Kowloon West, Hong Kong’s smallest geographic constituency, exercise as much political will as 125 bank CEOs in the Finance FC, or 147 members of the Heung Yee Kuk rural council.
While anger over FCs took a backseat in the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests, it has reemerged again since, with all pan-democratic political parties – which consistently win a majority of geographic votes – calling for the system’s abolition.
One person, two votes
Here’s where it gets even weirder.
As part of a political reform compromise in 2010, a new functional constituency was created in which only elected members of the District Council (local bodies akin to county or town councils elsewhere) could stand, but the electorate for which would be expanded to the 3.4 million Hong Kongers who could not vote in another FC.
That means that Hong Kongers operates on a one person, two votes system, where voters choose a representative from their geographic constituency and from a relevant FC or the District Council FC, nicknamed “super seats.”
What’s at stake for Hong Kongers?
Most Hong Kong voters place candidates’ stance on political and democratic reform at the top of their agenda.
“We need to send the right person to LegCo and then we can talk about social issues,” 27-year-old Stanley Yeung told CNN.
Teresa Chan, 64, cited the recent alleged kidnappings of booksellers by mainland Chinese agents as a reason why she wanted legislators that advocate for more democracy and rule of law in the city.
The rise of Hong Kong independence parties, in the wake of the failed Umbrella Movement, has left some wary of a split among pan-democratic voters that could benefit pro-Beijing parties.
“There’s like a civil war going on, which isn’t good for both sides,” Nathan Chan, a 20-year-old supporter of the traditional pro-democracy Civic Party, told CNN.
Tom Lui, 25, who is leaning towards pro-independence candidates, says choosing who to vote for “is much more difficult after the Umbrella Movement.”
Several pro-independence candidates have been blocked from running, leading some to say they will boycott the poll in protest. “I will choose not to vote,” Anthony Yip, 28, told CNN, saying the ban was depriving Hong Kongers of their “freedom of speech.”
Others have been put off by the talk of independence, and the frequent disruption and occasional violence caused by protests. Hui Ka Fai, 41, told CNN felt he had no choice “but to vote for (pro-Beijing party) DAB” in order to ensure a peaceful, harmonious society.