Hong Kong voters deliver landslide victory for pro-democracy campaigners

Hong Kong’s voters have turned out in record numbers to deliver a landslide for pro-democracy campaigners in local elections, handing them control of every one of the region’s 18 councils for the first time.

The results are a powerful rebuke to the government in a vote that was widely seen as a proxy referendum on the city’s protest movement.

Both in absolute numbers and in turnout rates it was easily the biggest exercise in democratic participation that Hong Kong has seen, with many voters waiting more than an hour to cast their ballots.

When polls closed at 10.30pm on Sunday, nearly 3 million people had voted, representing more than 71% of the electorate and nearly half of Hong Kong’s population. Many had never voted before.

Pro-democracy politicians took control of all of the city’s 18 district councils, an unexpected clean sweep that analysts say was a unanimous vote of no confidence in the government.

It is also a sea change in Hong Kong politics, where pro-Beijing and government politicians have enjoyed a wealth of resources and support from the elite sectors.

“I would not use the word happy, but we have made progress towards a situation where we can fight back against the government,” said Clarisse Yeung, an artist-turned-politician who led campaigning in the Wan Chai district, and announced the shift of power with tears in her eyes.

“It’s important because we all know that we have been sacrificing too much in the past few months,” she said. “Hong Kong people are no longer naive. We have to prepare ourselves, we have to have faith in ourselves to bring change.”

A string of prominent pro-Beijing candidates were also evicted from what had been safe seats, among them Junius Ho, who has been widely reviled for shaking hands with a gang of thugs who attacked protesters and commuters in July.

There will be few immediate political consequences in Hong Kong because the councils have limited powers, only a small budget and a mandate restricted to hyper-local issues such as parks, bus stops and waste collection.

But the pro-democratic landslide was a defiant rebuke to the government’s frequent argument that its hardline policies had the support of a “silent majority”, who had been cowed by protester violence. In a peaceful vote, the city’s people came out against them.

It will also give Communist party chiefs in Beijing – who have backed the government as it dug into confrontation with demonstrators – cause to reconsider their approach. Hong Kong’s protests are perhaps the biggest challenge to China’s autocratic president, Xi Jinping, since he took power in 2012.

And these local election victories may sow the seeds of greater long-term influence for democrats, because the councils play a role in choosing the city’s chief executive and some legislators.

Many of those who turned out on Sunday had never cast a ballot before. “It’s my first time voting. I registered myself because of the [protest] movement,” said Vivian Lee, an insurance worker in her 30s. “I’m happy so many people have come out to vote, because we want our voices heard.”

Despite long queues outside polling stations a spirit of exhilaration gripped much of the city, perhaps because people had a chance to give private, peaceful verdicts on a showdown that has upended normal life.

It was the first weekend without teargas on the streets since mid-August, though after voting ended, riot police did end an almost entirely peaceful day by using pepper spray to resolve a dispute between supporters of rival candidates.

District elections had not previously attracted much interest in Hong Kong, or beyond. The councils have a reputation for self-serving indolence and for years they were packed by disciplined and well-funded pro-Beijing candidates.

But months of pro-democracy protests, from a 2 million-strong peaceful march in June, to increasingly violent street demonstrations that culminated in a siege of a city-centre university, turned a sleepy local poll into something more significant.

It was widely seen as a proxy referendum on the leader, Carrie Lam, who responded to the movement by backing an escalation of police action and refusing to negotiate or compromise with the protesters.

For many in Hong Kong, that made the poll both an opportunity and an obligation, particularly important because district councils are the only Hong Kong authority selected by full universal suffrage. The city’s leader is chosen by an electoral college and only some seats in the city’s legislature are selected in open ballots.

“If you are willing to march or protest in the streets, which requires blood and sweat and tears, it’s much easier to walk downstairs and vote,” said one man who has taken part in the street protests, and asked not to be named because of fear of official retaliation. “Even if the system is broken, we can try to use it against the government.”

Police watch as people queue in front of a polling station in Hong Kong

Police watch as people queue in front of a polling station in Hong Kong. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A last-minute surge in registrations added nearly 400,000 voters to the electoral rolls – most of them young – and a wave of novice pro-democracy candidates meant that for the first time in Hong Kong’s history every seat was contested.

Many pro-Beijing candidates were running on promises to “stop the violence” of the protests in which at least two people have died and hundreds have been injured, some critically.

Authorities have tried to paint the demonstrators as unreasonable extremists, and brush off calls for an independent inquiry into escalating police brutality.

But even in establishment strongholds, support for pro-democracy candidates grew. Adrian Lau ran in a seat that had never been contested by a pro-democracy candidate before, near a village where in July thugs thought to have links to the establishment attacked protesters and commuters.

“Many people have completely lost trust in the police after the incident,” he said. “Some told us they’d vote for us and thank us for giving them an alternative but daren’t say that out loud.”

A new Hong Kong extradition law is proposed, which would allow people to be transferred to mainland China for a variety of crimes. Residents fear it could lead to politically motivated extraditions into China’s much harsher judicial system.

Large public demonstrations start as thousands march in the streets to protest against the extradition bill.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, introduces concessions to the extradition bill, including limiting the scope of extraditable offences, but critics say they are not enough.

The scale of protests continues to increase as more than half a million people take to the streets. Police use rubber bullets and teargas against the biggest protests Hong Kong has seen for decades.

Lam says the proposed extradition law has been postponed indefinitely.

The protests continue as demonstrators storm the Legislative Council, destroying pictures, daubing graffiti on the walls and flying the old flag of Hong Kong emblazoned with the British union flag. The protests coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from the UK back to China.

Armed men in white T-shirts thought to be supporting the Chinese government attack passengers and passers-by in Yuen Long metro station, while nearby police take no action.

44 protesters are charged with rioting, which further antagonises the anti-extradition bill movement.

By now the protest movement has coalesced around five key demands: complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill, withdrawal of the use of the word “riot” in relation to the protests, unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped, an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of genuine universal suffrage.

The first charges are brought against protesters for covering their faces, after authorities bring in new laws banning face masks in order to make it easier to identify or detain protesters.

Chan Tong-kai, the murder suspect whose case prompted the original extradition bill is released from prison, saying that he is willing to surrender himself to Taiwan. The extradition bill is also formally withdrawn, a key demand of protesters.

Chow Tsz-lok, 22, becomes the first fatality of the protests. Chow, a computer science student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), was found injured in a car park in Tseung Kwan O in Kowloon, where he was believed to have fallen one storey. Protesters had been trying to disrupt a police officer’s wedding, which was being held in the area. A week later a 70-year-old cleaner who is thought to have been hit by a brick during a clash between protesters and pro-Beijing residents becomes the second person to die.

Stephen, a retired businessman in his 60s voting in the affluent Mid-Levels neighbourhood, said: “This will send the message to the government that they should be more humble. It’s your job to serve people, and not beat people up if they don’t listen to you.”


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