After months of protests in Hong Kong, an election with record turnout handed a big victory to pro-democracy local district council candidates, posing a new conundrum for Beijing and adding pressure on the city’s leader.
In the run-up to the citywide elections on Nov. 24, clashes had broken out between riot police and pro-democracy protesters who had barricaded themselves in several universities.
The standoffs were stoked in part by the death of a protester after a fall, and the police shooting of another that was captured on video.
Yet on Sunday, amid a rare lull, nearly three million people — about three-quarters of eligible voters — exercised their democratic rights, with pro-democracy candidates ultimately winning nearly 400 of the 452 seats. In the last election, four years ago, they won just 100.
Jackie Hung, a project officer with the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Diocese, told LICAS News the victory shows the majority of people in the city don’t have confidence in, nor trust Hong Kong’s government.
“The unexpected high voting rate reflects the anger, the suffering and the sacrifice of the Hong Kong people over the past six months,” Hung said.
“I hope the government administration can take the chance to restart democratic reform,” she said, adding that an independent enquiry needs to investigate police behavior against the demonstrators.
Police tactics in dealing with the protests have been widely seen as one of the major drivers for the clashes. But the government has so far said existing police oversight mechanisms are sufficient to handle complaints.
‘Slap in the face’
Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok told Reuters that most Hong Kongers think the result sends a message to the government that they support the protesters.
“The government and the pro-Beijing camp have always claimed they have public support,” Ma said. “But now … this is a big slap in the face because the public has showed their real position in record numbers.”
Hong Kong resident Mr. Cheung, a voter who supported the protests, said the result will remind the authorities who most of the city’s citizens actually support.
However, Cheung said such a victory has come at the cost of many young demonstrators’ futures. “It is a heavy price,” the middle-aged office worker with two children told LICAS News.
Cheung did not think the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would relent in trying to suppress the city’s pro-democracy movement or its supporters among civil society. “The CCP will not let us breathe a sigh of relief… This battle has not finished yet,” he warned.
Students and young people have been at the forefront of the protests that started in June as a backlash against a now-scrapped piece of legislation which would have allowed criminal defendants to be transferred from Hong Kong’s independent legal system to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, a Catholic, said in a statement that she respected the result. Lam said her government “will listen to the views of the public with an open mind and with serious reflection,” without offering specifics.
District councilors lack political heft and deal largely with livelihood issues. But taken as a bloc across Hong Kong, with their own offices, funding and networks, some say they provide the democrats with an extra lever with which to influence policies, even as the protests rumble on.
Lam’s room to maneuver, however, remains “very limited”, according to a voice recording obtained by Reuters this summer, though she has stressed a need to first end the violence and halt the chaos.
Some observers said she would now face more pressure to respond to the protesters’ demands.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 amid the promise of a high degree of autonomy, though the erosion of freedoms by China have stoked broader resentment and fueled the current political crisis.
With Reuters reporting by James Pomfret