Hong Kong’s district councillors traditionally handle municipal matters. But this election was a global event as almost 3 million residents clamoured to be heard

SCMP Reporters

Nearly 3 million Hongkongers voted in Sunday’s district council elections, the record-breaking turnout sending a peaceful but powerful signal of their demand for a say in the politics of their protest-rocked city.

Voter turnout was confirmed at 71.2 per cent of 4.1 million registered to vote, compared with 47 per cent in the 2015 polls, and far surpassed the record of 58 per cent set in 2016’s Legislative Council elections, where at least 10 localist candidates were elected.

Ballots were being counted as soon as polling ended at 10.30pm, with final results expected in the early hours of Monday, although disputes could delay the outcomes in several keenly fought districts. But all indications were that there would be a significant shift away from the pro-establishment camp that had dominated the district council landscape for years. Shortly before 1am, it was announced that the overall turnout was 2.94 million.

Signs of a struggle to retain their vote share emerged as early as 11am when candidates in the camp often dubbed as pro-Beijing and allies of the government began issuing emergency calls for votes to boost their chances.

LATEST: Pro-Beijing camp left reeling from landslide defeat in Hong Kong elections

There were also predictions that several high-profile lawmakers, double-hatting as district councillors and in marginal seats, could be dislodged from their council perch.

As rumours spread over the weekend that election officials would use a ruse to end voting prematurely, calls grew online for early and orderly voting, mobilising thousands to descend onto the more than 600 polling stations across the city and the outlying islands. Queues began forming as early as 6.30am, and a significant number of overseas Hongkongers and those in mainland China made the trek home to cast their ballots.

In Tai Kok Tsui, Evan Wong Leung-fung, 23, was among the first to vote. “I woke up so early to discharge my duty as a Hong Kong citizen and I chose to come to the polling station because of the rumours,” he said. “Although the government has made a clarification, I still played safe.”

Junius Ho appears during the district council election in Tuen Mun. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Constitutional and mainland affairs minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen acknowledged the rumours that trust in the government was low, an admission of the disconnect between the administration and citizens over the past six months of the unrest.

Taking place amid the protest crisis and worsening violence, which culminated in a siege at Polytechnic University last weekend, the elections attracted the global media’s attention. Many led their bulletins on the polls, never mind that these are for the lowest tier of administration in the city.

The traditionally uneventful ballot for 452 seats in the city’s 18 district councils, which decide on municipal minutiae such as the location of bus stops, car parks and other amenities, had taken on a disproportionate significance in a city deeply divided by the increasingly violent protests.

People queue up as Aberdeen Sports Centre. Photo: May Tse

Analysts said a strong showing by the opposition pan-democrats would indicate that Hongkongers still backed the protesters, despite a growing proclivity towards violence by some. There was little desire among them to got zek – a favourite Cantonese phrase literally meaning to cut the mat – or cut ties with the protesters even as the radical core had disrupted the lives of many with their mayhem and dented the city’s economy and international standing.

A clear message could be that voters were rejecting embattled leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s leadership and her handling of the crisis, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, which has roiled the city for nearly six months.

On the other hand, if the pan-democrats did not make dramatic headway and the pro-establishment camp retained its hold on the ground, more conservative voters could be sending a signal that they were tired of the violence and desired a return to normalcy.

Polling station queues in Tai Koo Shing. Photo: May Tse

Either way, the record turnout would be seen as a signal from voters to have their say in politics, said analysts, who also suggested that the need to reopen discussion on political reform could not be deferred for much longer without fuelling people’s frustrations.

Hong Kong aborted plans to have direct elections for the city’s chief executive as the Legislative Council in 2015 rejected a framework set by Beijing in which candidates had to be pre-vetted.

For now, the more direct impact of the district council elections will be on the 117 seats they would occupy in the nearly 1,200-member Election Committee that selects the chief executive.

Pat Heung South voters. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Currently in the district councils, pro-establishment councillors hold 292 seats while pan-democrats have 116 seats and independents hold 23.

More than 5,000 people have been arrested since the protests began in early June, and the demonstrations have morphed into an anti-government movement focusing on allegations of police brutality and a desire for universal suffrage. The two are among the five demands of protesters; the others are the withdrawal of the bill; a rejection of calling the clashes of June 12 a riot; and amnesty for those arrested then.

On Sunday, anything but black appeared to be the new black, as protesters studiously avoided wearing the colour, as agreed on their telegram channels.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam casts her vote at Raimondi College. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Radical and peaceful protesters blended in as one throughout the day in the autumn sunshine, joining snaking queues that coiled around housing blocks and neighbourhood markets and parks.

While black-clad protesters were nowhere to be seen, riot police in full gear were seen keeping an eye outside polling stations, studiously low-key, but their presence was hard to miss.

Student Sunny Chua, who turned 18 in May, joined the long queue outside the Kam Ping polling station in North Point in the evening to cast his first-ever ballot. “Our society is at a critical moment, and a lot has happened in my university too. I hope to use my own small effort to help elect a councillor who has the correct political attitude,” said the accounting major freshman at Baptist University.

Chua said that for him and many young people, a candidate’s political stance – rather than community benefits and services a councillor could promise – was the most important factor in making a choice.

At the polling station at Sung Tak Wong Kin Sheung Memorial School in Tai Po, Mr Tong, a 25-year-old civil servant, said the months-long protests had had a positive effect, given the high turnout.

“They’ve reminded us of our rights as citizens in Hong Kong, and shown us that we should choose our candidates wisely,” he said, declining to reveal whom he voted for.

A retiree surnamed Law, 75, who lives on Nathan Road, the main traffic artery in Kowloon, which has been a main protest flashpoint over the past six months, said he was not opting for a “pro-protester” candidate.

Sheung Tak Estate, Tseung Kwan O and still the voters come. Photo: Sam Tsang

“I am very scared of these young people who are creating trouble every day right below my home,” he said. “It has got really noisy and it makes me afraid to go out. They have not experienced poverty and a troubled society so they do not understand how important it is for Hong Kong to continue to prosper.”

Among those out in force to canvass for votes was activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the only aspirant banned from running. “Even if they censor me out from the ballot, lock me in prison, it will just encourage me to continue to fight for the future with even stronger determination,” he told reporters.

After voting early at Raimondi College on Robinson Road, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said many Hongkongers hoped the calm in the city over the last few days could continue after the polls. “I hope it means everyone does not want such chaos in Hong Kong, and we can leave these difficult times so that we can start afresh,” she said.

Asked whether she would view the results as a vote of confidence in her, Lam replied: “Today’s vote is for registered voters to select their preferred candidates to represent their district’s interests in the 18 district councils. I’m sure each registered voter will take into account all factors in deciding their choices.”

Voting proceeded without incident, but there were unverified reports of the elderly being bused in to vote at a few polling stations and others receiving free gifts before they cast their ballot.

In South Horizons West constituency, incumbent Judy Chan Ka-pui, of the New People’s Party, faced a challenge from Kelvin Lam Ho-por, regarded as a “plan B” candidate after Joshua Wong was disqualified.

Queues at polling stations in Lek Yuen Estate. Photo: Winson Wong

Chan said it was difficult to assess her chances. “The turnout is unprecedentedly high, though this constituency saw higher than average turnouts in previous elections,” Chan said. “We are not sure who they are siding with under such polarised social sentiment.”

Kelvin Lam also said the high turnout did not mean he could be optimistic. “Some flats here are used as police quarters, and that’s why the atmosphere is quite polarised,” he said. “I hope more youngsters come out and vote.”

In To Kwa Wan North, lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king, who leads the largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said: “We know this time there are a lot of people showing up to vote. We urge our supporters to come out, if you want to restore peace and order in our society.”

Lee, whose opponent was “Long hair” Leung Kwok-hung, added that she had never seen such high turnout for a district council election, and therefore results were hard to predict.

Kwong Po-yin, a doctor who gained her district council seat after the Occupy protests in 2014 as a localist, was seeking re-election in the Whampoa West constituency, Kowloon City district.

She said voting showed Hongkongers’ spirit of not giving up. “This is the first election since the protests. We’ve already lost a lot of comrades in the demonstrations, we hope to win this time,” she said. “Our society needs to be rebuilt, and we hope to see people still have hope in our own community.”

Riot police were deployed across the city. Photo: May Tse

Among the 1,090 candidates, 19 incumbent lawmakers were seeking re-election as district councillors. Some marginal seats could switch sides. Five of the lawmakers, including DAB’s Holden Chow Ho-ding and Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, garnered less than 55 per cent in their respective constituencies in the 2015 polls. Pan-democrats such as Democratic Party’s Ted Hui Chi-fung and James To Kun-sun also won by small margins in the previous election.

Ray Yep Kin-man, a professor at City University’s department of public policy, said: “Given the historic turnout rate for the district council elections, I think the pro-establishment camp will pay a heavy price for supporting the government in pressing ahead with the extradition bill [before it was withdrawn], and how it has handled the months of protests.

“Beijing needs to ponder whether it should bring forward the plan to sack Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as chief executive.”

Meanwhile, at ground zero of the protest movement over the past week, Polytechnic University, which had been besieged by police since last Sunday after extremely violent clashes with protesters, more diehard demonstrators walked out, suffering from mental and physical fatigue. But two protesters still holed up lobbed another charge at police: they said the siege was depriving them of their right to vote.

Reporting by Tony Cheung, Phila Siu, Kimmy Chung, Alvin Lum, Jeffie Lam, Sum Lok-kei, Kinling Lo, Yujing Liu, Nectar Gan, Cissy Zhou, Karen Yeung, Gigi Choy, Lilian Cheng, Linda Lew, Gary Cheung, Ng Kang-chung, Albert Han

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