Hong Kong elections: free travel for all on Legco polling day

  • Scheme covers services operated by the MTR Corporation, Kowloon Motor Bus, Citybus, New World First Bus and Hong Kong Tramways
  • Hong Kong officials hope to boost voter turnout for December 19 election with free transport

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Hong Kong’s main public transport network will not charge fares on December 19. Photo: SCMP / Sam Tsang

Everyone in Hong Kong will be able to ride the city’s trains, buses and trams for free on polling day in the coming Legislative Council election, officials have announced in a bid to boost voter turnout.

Confirming a Post report, the government said that no one would be charged to use Hong Kong’s mainstream public transport system on December 19 so as to provide convenience to voters.

The scheme covers services operated by the MTR Corporation, Kowloon Motor Bus, Citybus, New World First Bus and Hong Kong Tramways. It does not include airport and border routes, as well as overnight services and many of those covering south Lantau. The offer also does not apply to KMB’s premium P routes.

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The move marks concerted efforts by the government to maximise turnout, after Beijing overhauled the city’s electoral system to ensure only “patriots” could hold political office.

But the complimentary tickets have upset some transport operators, with one saying that as commercial ventures they were effectively being forced to bear the cost of foregone revenue.

The government has not said whether it will subsidise the burden of lost takings.

“It is very frustrating because the operators are forced to waive the fares,” one of the operators told the Post. “And riders could take advantage of the free rides for leisure and entertainment purposes.”

A massive publicity drive in Hong Kong is trying to encourage residents to vote. Photo: SCMP / Felix Wong

Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun estimated that HK$35 million (US$4.5 million) worth of fares would be foregone that day, based on the HK$13 billion in ticket revenues brought in across those modes of public transport in the whole of last year.

The incentive was announced even with most people living within walking distance of their local voting station. About 4.5 million people are eligible to vote.

Over the past week, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials have been out in their droves urging people to vote.

The government has for the first time also set up polling booths at three checkpoints on the mainland border, reflecting concerns that turnout will be among the lowest for years in the wake of the Beijing-decreed overhaul in March.

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Critics have argued the reforms will stifle opposition voices, though supporters say they will ensure only patriots are running the city.

Finance chief Paul Chan Mo-po, labour and welfare minister Law Chi-kwong, and innovation bureau head Alfred Sit Wing-hang have each published video messages to promote the election.

Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu and Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, who is in charge of constitutional affairs, also called on the public to vote in separate public functions on Friday.

Under the electoral changes, Legco’s membership has expanded from 70 to 90, while the number of directly elected geographical seats has been slashed from 35 to 20.

As a result, critics are predicting a much lower turnout than in previous years.

In the 2016 poll, turnout in the geographical constituencies was 58 per cent, up from 53 per cent in the 2012 election. The figure for the mainly trade-based functional constituencies was 74 per cent, compared with 70 per cent in the earlier contest.

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Some observers have estimated that turnout for the geographical constituencies this year could be as low as between 20 per cent and 30 per cent.

Xia Baolong, head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told city residents on Monday that the poll represented “a vote of confidence” in the city’s implementation of the “one country, two systems” governing principle.

But in an interview with the Global Times on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that low voter participation could indicate public satisfaction with their government.

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