Hong Kongers flock to polls as democracy camp seeks to send message

Yan ZHAO, Xinqi SU
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Lengthy queues snaked out of polling stations across the territory in the election for 18 district councils

Hong Kong's people turned out in force on Sunday to cast ballots in local council elections that the city's pro-democracy movement hopes will add pressure on the Beijing-backed government to heed their demands.

Queues several hundred meters long snaked out of polling stations in the early hours of a vote for 18 district councils in which high turnout is expected to benefit democratic forces.

The government said nearly a third of the record 4.13 million citizens registered to vote had cast their ballots within five hours of polls opening, more than double the rate seen over the same timeframe during the last election in 2015.

The selection of 452 councillors handling community-level concerns like bus routes and garbage collection traditionally generates little excitement, but has taken on new significance following months of political unrest.

Hong Kong has been buffeted by mass rallies and violent clashes pitting police against protesters who are agitating for direct popular elections of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's government, as well as a probe into alleged police brutality.

District councils have long been dominated by the pro-Beijing establishment, and voters seeking change hope that weakening that grip will give their movement fresh momentum.

"I hope this ballot can increase our voice in the council," 19-year-old student Michael Ng, voting for the first time in his life, told AFP.

"Even though one ballot can only help a little, I still hope it can bring change to society and support street protests in some way."

The vote is the closest that Hong Kongers get to direct representation.

By contrast, the legislature is elected by a mix of popular vote and industry groups stacked with China loyalists, which ensures Beijing's control of the city of around 7.3 million.

The pro-democracy camp is calling Sunday's vote a referendum on Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the pro-Beijing government, which have resisted the movement's demands.

But the polls are not entirely symbolic: some candidates for next year's legislative elections will be drawn from district councillors, and the councils also will contribute 117 members to the 1,200-strong Beijing-controlled electoral college that chooses the chief executive.

- Calm streets -

Protests have been muted in recent days after pro-democracy figures urged citizens to cease disruptions to avoid giving the government an excuse to delay or suspend the polls.

Police were deployed at some polling stations and on city streets, but the presence was not particularly heavy.

No violence or other disturbances were reported in the early hours.

"I'm pleased to say that ... we should have a relatively peaceful and calm environment to conduct these elections successfully," Lam said after voting in her constituency on Hong Kong island.

The political unrest kicked into high gear with giant rallies in June against a bill backed by Lam that would allow extraditions to China's opaque justice system.

The bill was eventually withdrawn amid public pressure, but the anger that it unleashed sparked the wider calls for democracy.

Analysts expect pro-democracy candidates to see gains in the district councils but still fall short of a majority of slots.

Campaigning has been marred by acrimony, with one pro-democracy candidate having his ear bitten off in an attack, while 17 other candidates of all stripes -- some seeking re-election -- have been arrested over protest-related activities.

Election authorities also banned leading democracy activist Joshua Wong from running in the district poll for backing Hong Kong "self-determination".