Hong Kong elections: pro-democracy camp wins 17 out of 18 districts while city leader says she will reflect on the result

Jeffie Lam

The anti-establishment reverberations from almost six months of street protests swept through polling stations across Hong Kong on Sunday, as voters in record numbers roundly rejected pro-Beijing candidates in favour of pan-democrats.

The tsunami of disaffection among voters was clear across the board, as pan-democrats rode the wave to win big in poor and rich neighbourhoods, in both protest-prone and non-protest-afflicted districts and, in downtown areas as well as the suburbs.

Less immediately obvious was whether there was a generational divide in the way people voted, but ousted pro-establishment district councillors suggested that young, first-time voters had been instrumental in dislodging them from their perch.

The final election results were confirmed at 1pm on Monday when the vote count was completed at Lam Tin constituency of Kwun Tong District Council.

Among the 452 seats up for grabs, the pan-democrats were victorious in 347, the independents – many of them pro-democracy – won 45, while the pro-establishment camp had to make do with 60.

The pro-democracy camp now has control of 17 out of 18 district councils. It won all elected seats in Wong Tai Sin and Tai Po district councils.

The only council held by the pro-establishment camp was the 18-member Islands district, where eight seats were handed out automatically to pro-establishment rural chiefs.

Before Sunday, all councils had been under pro-establishment control since the 2015 elections.

In a statement on Monday, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised to reflect on the voters’ message.

“There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” the statement read.

It added that the government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”.

Youthful, fresh-faced candidates, many active in the anti-government protests roiling the city over the past six months, were among prominent winners of the historic district council elections which had a record turnout of 2.94 million voters, representing 71.2 per cent of registered electors, up from the previous figure of 47 per cent in 2015.

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In a stunning setback that could force an internal reshuffle, the city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which fielded 179 candidates, won only 21 seats. It had 119 before the election.

Party chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king defended her seat in To Kwa Wan North, Kowloon City district. Lee fended off former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung of the pro-democracy camp.

The Democratic Party and the Civic Party, which won 91 and 32 seats respectively, have emerged as the two biggest parties on the city's district councils. DAB was relegated to the third largest party.

The pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions and the Business and Professionals Alliance won five and three seats respectively.

The dramatically changing colour of the 452-member district council map from the predominantly blue stronghold of the pro-Beijing ranks, which held 292 seats before the polls, to the pan-democratic camp’s yellow hue became clear early on as counting began when polls closed at 10.30pm.

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Since the pro-democracy bloc won majorities on nearly all district councils, it is likely to be awarded 117 seats on the election committee that selects the city’s chief executive.

Although the district councils handle local matters and have no direct say over the chief executive’s programme, the elections were seen as a barometer of support either for the anti-government protest movement or for the embattled leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her handling of the roiling unrest.

With the thrashing suffered by the pro-Beijing camp, the government’s allies, it would appear Lam’s position was becoming increasingly untenable, even as she herself on Sunday tried to frame the elections as being about district-level matters.

The elections were held after nearly six months of anti-government protests. Photo: EPA

The major upsets of the night occurred barely an hour after counting began, with Junius Ho Kwan-yiu suffering the ignominy of being the first and highest-profile casualty of the anti-establishment backlash, soon followed by veteran lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun.

Ho, who became a hate figure for the city’s pro-democracy movement after he was filmed shaking hands with men believed to have been involved in a vicious attack on protesters and passengers at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, did not win any sympathy votes despite suffering a knife attack just three weeks before the elections.

Ho lost to democrat Cary Lo Chun-yu, who unseated him from his Lok Tsui constituency in Tuen Mun, winning 3,474 votes to Ho’s 2,278. The third candidate, Chiang Ching-man, got only 49 votes.

In a Facebook post, Ho described his loss as “strange” and “regrettable”. He won more votes than at the last election, but not enough to keep his seat this time.

“I’m moved, the opposition overwhelmed me with congratulations. It is not a bad thing to transform their brutality to harmony,” he wrote.

Lawmaker Tien lost his seat in Discovery Park, Tsuen Wan district, to pro-democracy candidate Lau Cheuk-yu. “I respect the electorate’s decision,” Tien said.

The politician, known for his outspoken ways and dubbed the bad boy of the pro-Beijing camp, said he had the same number of votes as previously but suspected he lost out because of first-time voters.

“If that’s true, it means young people are no longer insensitive to politics,” Tien said, adding the government would need to listen to the voice of young people.

Other pro-establishment bigwigs were among the biggest losers. The DAB’s Holden Chow Ho-ding, Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, Vincent Cheng Wing-shun and Edward Lau Kwok-fan were among those ousted.

Jubilation as another pro-democracy politician wins in the district council elections. Photo: AP

Cheung, a member of Lam’s executive council or team of advisers, said it was too early to draw any firm conclusions on the results. His party would hold a central committee meeting to discuss the election outcome.

The losses sustained by the DAB were reminiscent of those it faced in 2003. Back then, only 62 out of 206 candidates won from the staunchly pro-Beijing party. That came after half a million people took to the streets to oppose the proposal to enact national security laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Back then, the devastating results prompted the resignation of party chairman Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. Any post mortem conducted by the party this time is likely to lead to a shake-up of its key leadership.

Federation of Trade Unions’ legislators Alice Mak Mei-kuen and Ho Kai-ming were among other veterans booted out. Mak, who gained recent notoriety for uttering an expletive at Lam during a closed-door meeting over the decision to withdraw the extradition bill, blamed her loss on the administration.

“The administration’s governance has given rise to so many public grievances. In the election campaign, pro-government candidates have been unfairly treated. This is a very important reason,” Mak said.

Some of the 2.94 million votes are counted at a polling station for the first Hong Kong elections since the protest crisis broke out in June. Photo: EPA-EFE

She said she had been serving her constituents diligently for more than a quarter of a century but, in a divided society, “it’s not about our work, it’s about our political stance”.

Among the young winners, at least five activists from the Occupy movement of 2014, which opposed Beijing’s electoral reforms, won seats, nudging out veterans.

Occupy student activist Lester Shum, who ousted Chow Ping-tim in the Tsuen Wan constituency of Hoi Bun, was emotional in victory. “The government must respond to our five demands as soon as possible,” he said. “We can be happy for tonight and take a rest tomorrow, but we will need to keep up our fight the day after for the future of Hong Kong.”

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The five demands have been the clarion call of protesters during the past six months of demonstrations, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, which has since morphed into a full-blown anti-government movement that has resulted in increasingly violent clashes with police.

The five demands are for the withdrawal of the bill, an agreement not to call the clashes of June 12 a riot, amnesty for those arrested on that day, a commission of inquiry into allegations of excessive use of force by the police and a push for genuine universal suffrage.

All five Occupy activists were prime movers of the peaceful protests over the past months. Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, the convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of the mass marches of the movement, was also among those elected. Sham, who was still wearing crutches and recovering from an attack by hammer-wielding thugs, called on Lam to listen to the people’s voice and address the demands.

“I hoped the pro-democracy bloc could win more than half of the seats in district council elections,” Sham said. He hoped the pan-democrats would try their best to carry out their duties to prove that “supporters of democracy are more outstanding than those who support the establishment”.

There was a record turnout for Hong Kong’s district council elections in what has been a crushing defeat for the pro-establishment camp. Photo: Reuters

Another key winner was Kelvin Lam, 40, who replaced Occupy student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung on the ticket after the latter was banned from running because of his stance on self-determination. Lam beat incumbent Judy Chan Ka-pui of the New People’s Party by 4,100 votes to 3,100 in the South Horizons West constituency, Southern district.

“The high turnout rate did benefit the pro-democracy camp,” Kelvin Lam said. “The result is like a referendum of the current administration, like a confidence vote.”

As of just before 11am, the Hang Seng Index had shot up 1.7 per cent to 27,045. Analysts said the rally came on hopes that the election results would mean the recent violent protests subside.

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With pan-democrats set to ride the new momentum, their challenge will be to harness their new-found power at the district council level.

If before the government could rely on the pro-establishment controlled district councils to rubber-stamp its measures on municipal affairs, it is all but certain there will now be gridlock, with both sides set to clash on decision-making.

One key challenge for the democrats will be to force concessions out of Lam and her government, especially on resolving the current political impasse over the protesters’ demands.

Lam had insisted she would not address any of their demands unless the city returned to calm and order, after increasingly radical acts by demonstrators who have attacked metro stations and shops linked to mainland China, disrupted traffic and barricaded roads.

More than 5,000 people have been arrested since the protests began in early June and radicals have become increasingly violent in their clashes with police. On Sunday, anything but black appeared to be the new black, as protesters studiously avoided wearing the colour, as agreed on their Telegram channels.

As result announcements rolled into the early hours of Monday, on LIHKG, protesters’ Reddit-like virtual command centre, there was much celebration but also reflection on next steps. The victory was but a small milestone, said some, with more yet to be achieved in their pursuit of democracy.

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