Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp was headed for a thumping victory in district council elections, local media reported on Monday, a vote widely seen as a referendum on the Beijing-backed government’s handling of months of violent political unrest.
Counting was still under way following record turnout in Sunday’s elections, but results so far indicated that candidates favouring calls for greater democracy were on course to seize a shock majority of the 452 seats contested, media reports said.
District councils – which handle community-level concerns such as bus routes and garbage collection – have long been dominated by the pro-Beijing establishment.
The pro-democracy camp hopes weakening that grip would send a message to China and Hong Kong’s unpopular leader Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong has endured months of mass rallies and violent clashes pitting police against protesters who are mobilised by fears that Beijing is whittling away at the semi-autonomous territory’s freedoms, which are unique for China.
People line up at a polling station to vote in the Hong Kong District Council elections today. The first results should start trickling in before midnight
Government data showed more than 1.9 million people had voted by 3.30 pm, meaning a turnout rate of 47%. Pictured: people look at their mobile phones as they queue up
Riot police stand outside of a polling place in Hong Kong today. A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats in the elections
Their demands include direct popular elections and a probe into alleged police brutality against demonstrators.
‘The voice of the public is loud and clear… We hope the government can heed the protesters’ demands,’ Roy Kwong, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature who won a district council seat for the Democratic Party, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.
Results from 241 races tabulated early Monday by the newspaper showed 201 pro-democracy candidates winning their races as opposed to just 28 pro-Beijing establishment candidates and 12 independents.
Analysts had expected pro-democracy candidates to achieve only minimal gains in the councils.
A record 71 percent of the 4.13 million citizens who registered to vote had cast their ballots, according to Hong Kong’s election watchdog, far higher than the then-record 47 percent who voted in 2015 council elections.
The largely leaderless protest movement started with giant rallies in June against a bill backed by Lam that would have allowed extraditions to China’s opaque justice system.
People line up to vote in district council elections in South Horizons in Hong Kong. Many have said the voter numbers showed people’s determination
The voting numbers have surpassed the 1.47 million who had voted in the last district elections which happened four years ago
The bill was eventually declared ‘dead’ as public pressure grew, but the anger it unleashed sparked wider calls for democracy, which Lam’s government has resisted.
China has said the unrest is being fomented by violent foreign-backed criminals.
Long queues snaked out of polling stations across the territory of around 7.5 million on Sunday.
‘Even though one ballot can only help a little, I still hope it can bring change to society and support street protests in some way,’ 19-year-old student Michael Ng, voting for the first time said.
The vote is the closest Hong Kongers get to direct representation.
The territory’s legislature is elected by a mix of popular vote and industry groups stacked with China loyalists, which ensures Beijing’s control.
But some candidates for next year’s legislative elections will be drawn from district councils, and the bodies also will contribute 117 members to the 1,200-strong Beijing-controlled electoral college that chooses the chief executive.
Protests died down in the poll run-up after pro-democracy figures urged calm to avoid triggering any delay or suspension of the polls.
No major disturbances were reported during voting.
Chinese state media ran editorials on Sunday urging Hong Kongers ‘to vote to end violence’.
A riot policeman stands as voters line up outside of a polling place in Hong Kong. The elections have become a barometer of public support for anti-government protests now in their sixth month
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the press after casting her vote during the district council elections in Hong Kong today
Campaigning was marred by acrimony, with one pro-democracy candidate having his ear bitten off in an attack, while 17 other candidates of all stripes were arrested over protest-related activities.
Election authorities also banned leading democracy activist Joshua Wong from running, over his support for Hong Kong ‘self-determination’.
Government data showed more than 1.9 million people had voted by 3.30 pm, meaning a turnout rate of 47 percent, with seven hours left until polling stations close.
This surpasses the 1.47 million who voted in the last district elections four years ago. Police presence was thin.
The first results should start trickling in before midnight.
Ming Lee, 26, who works in event production, said she hoped the higher turnout would benefit the pro-democracy camp that is battling some seats that were once uncontested and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates.
‘I hope this vote can counter the voice of the pro-establishment, so as to bring in more voices from the democrats,’ she said. ‘The social problems encouraged people to vote and to focus on political issues.’
The voter numbers showed people’s determination, said Tsz, 30, who works in the service industry.
A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats and a record 4.1 million people have enrolled to vote for district councillors who control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health
Ming Lee, 26, who works in event production, said she hoped the higher turnout would benefit the pro-democracy camp that is battling some seats that were once uncontested and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates
‘The high turnout rate definitely reflects Hong Kong people’s hope for genuine universal suffrage,’ he said.
Jimmy Sham, a candidate for the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised some of the mass anti-government rallies of recent months, was beaten by men with hammers in October.
‘We can see Hongkongers are longing for a chance to express their stand,’ he said. ‘We don’t know yet, at the end of the day, if the democrats can win a majority. But I hope our Hong Kong citizens can vote for the future of Hong Kong.’
Police were seen outside some polling stations and on the streets but correspondents said they kept a low profile.
Beijing-backed Lam cast her ballot in front of television cameras and pledged that her government, widely seen as out of touch, would listen ‘more intensively’ to the views of district councils.
‘I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today’s election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again,’ Lam said.
If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects its chief executive
The voter numbers showed people’s determination, said Tsz, 30, who works in the service industry. Pictured: voters queue up to make their choice
The anti-China protests have at times forced the closure of government, businesses and schools in the city’s worst political crisis in decades, as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in response to petrol bombs, rocks and occasionally bows and arrows.
A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats and a record 4.1 million people have enrolled to vote for district councillors who control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health.
If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects its chief executive.
Restaurant manager Jeremy Chan saw the elections in the Asian financial hub as offering Beijing supporters a chance to share their opinions.
People queue to cast their vote during the district council elections in South Horizons in Hong Kong today
Long queues formed on Sunday amid fears polls might be closed by authorities if violence disrupted the election
In the run-up to the election, pro-democracy protest groups had urged people not to cause disruption but no trouble has been reported so far
‘They believe they are fighting for democracy, fighting for Hong Kong, but the rioters only listen to what they want to hear,’ said the 55-year-old, citing vandalism of businesses seen as pro-Beijing. ‘Freedom of speech is lost.’
The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Sunday was the seventh day of a stand-off at Polytechnic University, its campus surrounded by police as some protesters hid out on the sprawling grounds.
‘The district council election is almost like a referendum on recent months of social activity,’ said a protester clad in a red university tracksuit, his face covered by a red mask, unable to escape without being caught.
‘My personal liberty to vote has been violated,’ he added.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are also responding to perceived police brutality.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the ‘one country, two systems’ formula for the autonomy of Hong Kong. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.