Long queues formed when Hongkongers headed to the polls early on Sunday to vote in the city’s first public election since mass protests broke out, with early turnout figures dwarfing those from four years ago.
More than 720,000 people had cast their vote within three hours of polling stations opening for the district council elections, some having waited more than an hour. In 2015, 212,000 had turned out within that time frame.
A record 4.1 million Hong Kong residents are registered to vote in the polls, in which 1,090 candidates will contest 452 seats.
In 18 districts across the city, they will directly elect councillors, who handle community-level affairs such as transport and public facilities.
But the elections are widely seen as a barometer of support for the anti-government protest movement and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s leadership.
After voting at Raimondi College on Robinson Road, Lam said many Hongkongers hoped the calmness in the city over the last few days could continue after the polls.
“In recent days we have seen society returning to peace. Many residents expressed that they value this calm, on social media or other platforms,” she said after voting.
“I hope this stability over the last few days is not only for today’s election, but 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.”
More than 600 polling stations are due to open between 7.30am and 10.30pm.
Security is tight around the stations. About 20 riot police and at least eight masked officers from the Correctional Services Department patrolled the area around the polling station at Hong Kong Park Sports Centre in Central.
By 10.30am, more than 720,000 people, or 17.43 per cent of the registered total, had cast their vote.
Turnout for the first three hours of polling was more than three times higher than the same period in 2015, when only 212,000 people, or 6.79 per cent, had voted. Total turnout four years ago was 47 per cent.
The city’s first post-handover leader Tung Chee-hwa said residents had to use their vote to reject the behaviour of “rioters”.
“The past few days we have seen brave citizens collectively clean up the city’s streets," he said at the sports centre polling station.
“This is saying no to rioters. No matter what reason, rioters cannot destroy Hong Kong, so we must keep saying ‘no, no, no’.”
Messages circulating online called for people to vote early amid rumours that “emergency situations” could force polling stations to close as early as 10.30am, with a final count of the ballots taken then.
The Registration and Electoral Office issued a swift clarification, saying that, in the event of an emergency, voting at specific polling stations would either resume within 90 minutes of the disruption, or be postponed until December 1.
But many young people heeded the calls to vote early.
A 21-year-old first-time voter, who only gave his surname Kwan, arrived at the voting station in Sha Tin Government Secondary School at 7.45am.
“I got up earlier because I saw from social media that the polling station will be closed at 11am, but I have to vote this time, so I got up much earlier than usual at the weekend to vote,” he said.
Chief executive Carrie Lam cast her vote on Robinson Road in Central earlier this morning, saying she hopes the peace seen in the last few days will continue in Hong Kong.
Video: SCMP/Karen Yeung pic.twitter.com/deXFvalXQY
— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) November 24, 2019
In Tai Kok Tsui, Evan Wong Leung-fung, 23, said it was the first time he was voting in the district council elections.
“I woke up so early to discharge my duty as a Hong Kong citizen, and I chose to come to the polling station because there have been rumours that polling stations affected by chaos could be closed, and only those ballots cast beforehand would be counted,” he said.
“Although the government has made a clarification, I still played safe and came to the polling station in the morning,” he said.
Constitutional affairs minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen was asked why so many young voters were out to vote early in the morning.
Speaking after voting at Sha Tin Government Secondary School, he said: “The people’s level of trust in the government has been relatively low ... but as I have said, the voting time is from 7.30am to 10.30pm, and votes will only be counted after this process has finished.”
At 7.25am, about 50 voters were waiting outside the polling station at Sha Tin Government Secondary School.
A 47-year-old civil servant, who only gave his surname Ng, and his wife were standing at the front of the queue.
Ng, who arrived at 6.45am, said he supported democracy but declined to reveal which candidate he supported.
“If you support democracy, then you sympathise with some of the protesters, but I don’t support using extreme means to support goals.” Ng said.
He said his life had been affected to a degree by the past six months of protests, but added he found that acceptable.
Queuing outside the school, a woman told broadcaster TVB she supported the Hong Kong government, drawing ridicule from those nearby.
In Tai Kok Tsui, nearly 300 people queued up outside the Island Harbourview Elderly Club of the Asian Outreach Hong Kong, the polling station of Olympic constituency.
In Central, some 50 people were there early to enter the sports centre polling station, of Peak constituency, at 7.30am. Most of them were older voters.
Pro-democracy challenger Thomas Uruma Kuninobu, 46, who is of Japanese heritage, was among the early voters.
“A pan-democratic majority will deliver a serious message to the world and the Chinese government this is what Hong Kong people want,” he said.
Kuninobu is running against the incumbent Jeremy Young Chit-on, from the Liberal Party. Yeung’s party have held the Peak seat since 2011.
The polls are being held in the midst of the Hong Kong protest crisis now in its sixth month and are seen as a de facto referendum on the handling of the unrest by the government and the stance taken by its allies.
It will have knock-on effects for the Legislative Council elections next year which draw candidates from among the successful district councillors.
At Sha Tin's Lek Yuen Community Hall, people have been waiting for over an hour to cast their votes.
Video: SCMP/Alvin Lum pic.twitter.com/D9AODawBAj
— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) November 24, 2019
Anger against the government and police could erode the dominance of the pro-establishment side and mean more seats for the pan-democratic camp.
The police force has taken steps to ensure the election runs smoothly. The city’s new police commissioner, Chris Tang Ping-keung, said on Friday that sufficient manpower would be deployed at all polling stations to guard against interference.
A senior police source said almost all officers in the 31,000-strong force, no matter the division they were attached to, had to report for duty on election day, with 3,000 riot control officers and crime investigators on standby.
Supporters of both camps urged people to vote in the elections based on candidates' stance on the protests.
On mainland social media platform WeChat, Hong Kong-based mainlanders shared a list of 452 pro-establishment candidates and urged people to vote for them to end the protest chaos.
“Let’s make the first step to stop violence, let’s work hard together and hope for a good result,” the post read.
Pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong adopted similar tactics by colour-coding candidates by their political views.
Additional reporting by Gary Cheung and Tony Cheung
More from South China Morning Post:
- All eyes on Hong Kong district council elections on eve of race perceived as barometer for how city feels about protest crisis
- Why Hong Kong district council elections are important and how ongoing protests may affect vote
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