After months of sometimes-violent unrest in Hong Kong, an election with record turnout handed a big victory to pro-democracy local district council candidates, posing a new conundrum for Beijing and adding pressure on the city’s leader.
In the run-up to the citywide elections on Sunday, extreme clashes had broken out between riot police and anti-government protesters who had barricaded themselves in several universities.
The standoffs were stoked in part by the death of a protester after a fall, and the shooting of another by a policeman at point-blank range.
Yet on Sunday, amid a rare lull, nearly three million people – about three-quarters of eligible voters – queued on a crisp, cerulean autumn day to exercise their democratic rights, with pro-democracy candidates ultimately winning nearly 400 of the 452 seats.
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In the last election, four years ago, they won just 100.
“Most people think the extra one million voters came out to send a political message to the government, that they still support the protesters and they’re dissatisfied with the government,” said Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok.
“The government and the pro-Beijing camp have always claimed they have public support,” Ma added. “But now … this is a big slap in the face because the public has shown their real position in record numbers.”
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said in a statement she respected the result and that her government “will listen to the views of the public with an open mind and with serious reflection,” without offering specifics.
“The HKSAR Government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect,” the statement said, referring to the city’s formal name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
District councilors lack political heft and deal largely with livelihood issues. But taken as a bloc across Hong Kong, with their own offices, funding, and networks, some say they provide the democrats with an extra lever with which to influence policies, even as the protests rumble on.