Pro-democracy parties scored stunning gains in the Hong Kong district council elections Sunday, sweeping aside pro-Beijing parties in a significant endorsement of the protest movement and an indictment of the political establishment seen as responsible for months of unrest in the city.
Voters took to the polls in record numbers to cast ballots in the only fully democratic election in the Chinese territory, an early sign they wanted to send a strong message to their government and to the Communist Party in Beijing.
Early results compiled by the South China Morning Post showed pro-democracy parties winning 201 of the first 241 seats to be declared, pro-Beijing parties taking 28, and independents 12. Many prominent figures in the protest movement won; many leading pro-establishment figures were unseated.
With nearly half of the 452 seats still to be declared, pro-democracy parties had comfortably surpassed the number of seats they won in 2015 and were on course for their strongest ever showing in district council elections.
Earlier, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) said it had already lost in more than 100 of the 182 races it had contested.
The turnout – 2.94 million, or more than 71% of the 4.13 million eligible voters – was more than double the 1.4 million who voted in local elections in 2015. Voter registration was also a record high, driven in part by 390,000 first-time voters.
“Hong Kongers regard the election as a referendum and have clearly spoken that they are unhappy with how Hong Kong and Beijing have dealt with the ongoing protests in the last six months,” said Kelvin Lam, who won in the South Horizons West seat, according to the SCMP.
Lam was drafted to contest the seat for the pro-democracy camp after prominent activist Joshua Wong was barred from standing.
In 2015, pro-Beijing parties won just over 54 percent of the vote and 298 of the 452 seats to take control of all 18 district councils. They tend to be better funded and organized than pro-democracy groups, with solid links with the business elite and political establishment that allow them to argue they’re best placed to get things done for their constituents.
Pro-democracy groups won 40 percent of the vote and 126 seats in 2015. Independents took the remainder.
But this time around, elections that have typically been fought on issues such as traffic, trash collection and the nuisance of pests such as wild boars became a referendum on the most fundamental issue in the territory: Whether one stands with the movement fighting for democratic freedoms, or with the pro-Beijing establishment that has had a grip on the former colony since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
The protests were sparked in June by a proposal to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to China. The government eventually withdrew the proposal, but not before demonstrators added more demands: full democracy, retracting the official description of the protests as riots, amnesty for arrested protesters and an inquiry into alleged police brutality.
“The voice of the public is loud and clear: five demands, not one less,” said Roy Kwong Chun-Yu, who won in the Pek Long constituency. If Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam “doesn’t listen to our voice,” he said, “she must still not be awake.”
Even in pro-Beijing strongholds such as North Point, fresh-faced candidates running on an explicitly pro-democracy platform unseated longtime incumbents. Among them was 23-year old Karrine Fu, who beat 45-year old Hung Lin-Cham, the DAB incumbent who had won the past three elections.
DAB, which had been the largest party in the district councils, threw its weight behind the unpopular extradition bill. Its vice chairman, Holden Chow, lost his seat to a 25-year-old pro-democracy activist in one of several upsets for the party.
Lo Kin-Hei, vice-chairman of the pro-democracy Democratic Party, called the result was a “clear win” for his camp. “Really wonder what Carrie Lam & [Chinese President] Xi Jinping thought when they see the record-breaking turnout & result today,” he tweeted.
Voters waited for hours in lines that snaked around city blocks, an unusual experience for Hong Kong residents. Almost every neighborhood in the city has seen violent unrest at some point over the six-month long protest movement, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets and protesters countering with molotov cocktails and projectiles.