HONG KONG - Pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong took a significant early lead in district council elections after residents turned out in record numbers on Sunday to vote following six months of anti-government protests.
Initial results from the voting, which ended with no major disruptions, began to trickle in after midnight on Monday (Nov 25) and signalled major gains for the pro-democracy camp, Reuters reported.
As of about 4am local time, pro-democracy candidates had won at least 207 seats, compared to about 18 seats for the pro-establishment camp, according to local media estimates. A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats.
Earlier on Sunday, a record number of Hong Kong voters turned out to choose district councillors in local elections seen as a barometer of the government and Chief Executive Carrie Lam's popularity.
As at 10.30pm - when polls closed - 2.94 million people had cast their votes, representing 71.2 per cent of the total 4.13 million voters, said Mr Barnabas Fung, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission. This is far more than the 1.47 million, or 47 per cent, that had turned up in 2015.
The districts of Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin and Sai Kung - all in the New Territories - recorded the highest voting rates, said Mr Fung.
Results of the elections are expected to start coming in late on Sunday and into Monday.
The local elections were the first polls since anti-government protests escalated in June, sparked by a now-withdrawn Bill to allow extraditions to mainland China. The Bill had revived fears that Beijing was restricting the city's freedoms.
Concerned about potential violent protests on Sunday, the Hong Kong government stationed riot police at polling stations across the city's 18 districts.
When polls started at 7.30am, snaking but orderly queues had formed at many polling stations. Some voters waited for their turn for more than an hour.
A total of 1,090 candidates are contesting 452 seats, the first time that all the seats in the election have been contested after hundreds of pro-democracy candidates emerged during the recent unrest.
More than 390,000 new electors signed up this year, bringing the total registered voters to a record 4.1 million.
In the first hour of voting on Sunday, the turnout was triple what it was in 2015, according to election authorities.
A retiree, who wanted to be known only as Anthony, said Hong Kongers were apathetic towards politics and he hoped that this election could turn things around.
"Hopefully this is a positive development for Hong Kong going forward, and the pro-democracy camp can make inroads, and it'll help the coming Legislative Council elections," the 69-year-old told The Straits Times.
Over in the Tsing Lung Tau district in Tsuen Wan, administrator Jenny Suen, 59, was giving out flyers and canvassing.
"These elections are like a battle of the generations, between the older folk and the youth. If these pro-democracy folks win, I think our city is ruined," said Madam Suen, adding that they have only destroyed things.
"Their logic and reasoning is wrong. Their views are too shallow and short-sighted. If there is a majority (win) from these people, I'm going to migrate to the mainland," added the Hong Kong-born-and-bred Madam Suen.
British politician David Alton, an independent election observer who was visiting areas around polling stations in the afternoon, was upbeat about the situation, Bloomberg news agency reported. "The turnout is significantly up so far on previous elections, more than double from four years ago," he said.
District council elections are the only fully democratic elections in Hong Kong. The city's leader is not directly elected and only half of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, the lawmaking body, is directly elected.
The council elections focus primarily on local issues and typically attract less attention. Pro-Beijing parties usually dominate them.
Their significance lies in the fact that while district councillors' responsibilities are largely local, they are given 117 seats on the 1,200-member election committee - dominated by pro-Beijing groups and business interests - that selects Hong Kong's chief executive.
PRO-BEIJING PARTIES MAY SEE DIP
Pro-Beijing parties fear that this time round, elections may show a significant decline in support for them, reflecting widespread concerns over China's erosion of freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy parties have seized the opportunity created by the months-long anti-government protests to send a strong message to the Hong Kong government and to Beijing.
They are hoping for a repeat of the 2003 district council elections, when they saw a surge in support after mass demonstrations over the government's plans to introduce a controversial national security law.
In 2015, pro-Beijing parties won just over 54 per cent of the vote and 298 seats, taking control of all 18 district councils.
Pro-democracy groups won 40 per cent of the vote in 2015 and 126 seats, with independents taking the remainder.
The high voter turnout on Sunday, however, may not necessarily translate to advantages for pro-democracy candidates, experts say.
This is because district council work is very grassroots and pro-democracy candidates may not have a proven track record in serving people due to lack of financial resources, said Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Meanwhile, the pro-Beijng camp has experience in providing such services to residents, even though they may have been mediocre, he added.
While the election in Hong Kong is closely watched, Beijing also has other concerns on its plate, say experts.
Besides the ongoing trade spat with the United States, China is also watching if President Donald Trump would sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, as well as whether the United Kingdom and other European countries would follow suit, said Associate Professor Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The legislation would require annual reviews of Hong Kong's special trading status with the US.
"I think Beijing will have greater pressure to give further concession to Hong Kong in the next few months, particularly if the pan-democrats win this election," Prof Sing said.
CARRIE LAM'S APPEAL
Casting her vote at Raimondi College in Central and Western District on Sunday morning, Mrs Lam appealed to voters to come out to select their preferred candidates who could represent their interests. The next term of the district councils will start on Jan 1, 2020.
She pledged to fully support the work of the district councils, provide more resources and listen more attentively to the views and opinions expressed by the members.
While she dodged a question on her confidence in winning support from Hong Kongers, Ms Lam said: "We are facing an extremely challenging situation in organising this year's elections but I'm pleased to say that with the concerted efforts of all parties, including, of course, over 30,000 civil servants in many departments working today, we should have a relatively peaceful and calm environment to conduct these elections successfully."
Hong Kong's first post-handover leader Tung Chee Hwa told the media that citizens must use their vote to reject the behaviour of "rioters", adding that "brave citizens" have helped clean up the streets in the past few days.
Speaking at the polling booth in Hong Kong Park Sports Centre, he said: "This is saying no to rioters. No matter what reason, rioters cannot destroy Hong Kong, so we must keep saying 'no, no, no'."
In an interview with TVB, Sing Tao News Corp chairman Charles Ho Tsu Kwok said that about six or seven months ago, he had warned Ms Lam that the proposal for the extradition Bill was a bad idea.
"Six, seven months ago, I have already told Mrs Lam that her extradition Bill was wrong then as China and the United States were already in the midst of trade negotiations so by bringing this Bill up, she only adds to the chaos and trouble. But she didn't believe me. She was naive."
Mr Ho, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, also refuted rumours that he was helping form the next administration.
Separately, a handful of protesters who spoke to the media on Sunday remain in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The small group has been holed up in the Hung Hom campus since hundreds of protesters were locked in a standoff with police at the university eight days ago. Supplies like food and water have been cut off and have dwindled, while hygiene conditions continue to deteriorate.
Police on Sunday appealed to all those who remain on campus to leave in a peaceful manner, saying they will exercise "flexibility" and stressed the need for "peaceful solution". The force also pledged to bring offenders to justice in a fair manner.
With additional information from Reuters.