Hong Kong pro-democracy candidate Alvin Yeung wins New Territories East by-election

 Alvin Yeung (centre) waves at a campaign rally in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Alvin Yeung (centre) waves at a campaign rally in Hong Kong on Sunday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Hong Kong's traditional pro-democracy movement breathed a sigh of relief, as the candidate it backed - barrister Alvin Yeung - won in Sunday's legislative by-election in New Territories East.

This means that it retains a vital vetoing power for bills proposed by legislators.

However, it will have to ponder its direction going ahead, as the election results also heralded the rise of localism - hitherto a fringe political force - in Hong Kong.

A substantial minority of voters - about 15 per cent - opted for Mr Edward Leung, the 24-year-old spokesman for radical localist group Hong Kong Indigenous. It allegedly orchestrated the Mongkok riots over the lunar new year, which saw bloody clashes between protesters and police.

Mr Leung, a philosophy undergraduate from the University of Hong Kong, has said that the battle for Hong Kong's identity and democratic values has to be fought on the streets - with violence, if necessary. The peaceful ways of the traditional pro-democracy politicians have failed, he asserted.

The group's calls for Hong Kong to be independent from China have also raised the hackles of Beijing, which had branded the protesters as "separatists".

As the shape of the results became apparent early Monday morning, Mr Leung said: "It indicates that Hong Kongers agree with localist thinking to some extent."

Mr Yeung, 34, from the Civic Party, pipped pro-Beijing candidate Holden Chow of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong to the post with 37 per cent of the votes.

Mr Chow received 34 per cent.

About 46.1 per cent of the 940,000 eligible voters in the electoral district - in north-east Hong Kong - cast their votes.

Mr Yeung said that Mr Leung's vote share signifies that the pan-Democrats will need to "reform" their performance in the LegCo.

He added that the 24-year-old "is definitely someone of substance from the next generation" of Hong Kong politicians.

The friendly words came after tensions on the streets between the two men's supporters. Local media reported that there were skirmishes between both camps as campaigning drew to a close.

Sunday's election should have been an easy one for Mr Yeung, given that New Territories East is a pro-democracy stronghold. His mentor, Civic Party co-founder Ronny Tong held it for 11 years until he resigned last year, triggering the by-election.

But Mr Leung's rise to prominence especially after the Mongkok riots split the pro-democracy vote. Some residents who would otherwise have voted for Mr Yeung supported Mr Leung instead.

In the end, it was a relatively close race, with Mr Yeung and Mr Chow alternating in pole position as ballots from different polling stations were being counted. At one point, the difference in votes narrowed to 265.

Mr Tong Tai Loi, 58, a former electrical engineer who is now jobless, says that he voted for Mr Chow as "livelihood issues are what matters".

"Hong Kong now is in a mess. I don't care about political ideology but about bread and butter matters.

"The chaos created by the youngsters over the new year are affecting our mood and the business sentiments."

But retired university administrator Terrie Chan, 65, said she voted for Mr Yeung because he has "idealism".

xueying@sph.com.sg