Nicola Smith, Aidan Marzo and Erin Chan — The Telegraph Nov 25, 2019
Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular leader vowed Monday to “listen humbly” to voters after the pro-democracy camp scored a crushing victory in community-level elections that revealed broad public support for a protest movement that has sparked months of violence.
In a rout that stunned the semi-autonomous territory, candidates seeking to loosen control by China seized an overwhelming majority of the 452 seats in the city’s 18 district councils, bodies that have historically been firmly in the grip of a Beijing-aligned establishment.
The result was a humiliating rebuke to Beijing and Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has dismissed calls for political reform and had repeatedly suggested that a silent majority supported her administration and opposed the protest movement.
“The government will certainly listen humbly to citizens’ opinions and reflect on them seriously,” Lam said in a statement issued by the government.
She gave no specifics on her next move, but opponents quickly called on her to accede to a five-point list of demands, including direct elections for the city’s legislature and leadership and a probe into alleged police brutality against demonstrators.
“The voters used the most peaceful way to tell the government that we won’t accept Hong Kong becoming a police state, and an authoritarian regime,” said Wu Chi-wai, the chairman of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest anti-establishment party.
Hong Kong voters turned out in record numbers on Sunday for district elections, which are widely viewed as a test of public support for pro-Beijing chief executive Carrie Lam’s handling of pro-democracy protests that have plunged the Asian financial hub into crisis.
Results started to trickle out after midnight showing early signs of the landslide with at least a dozen pro-democracy candidates winning, including former student leaders.
Among them was a candidate who replaced prominent activist Joshua Wong, the only person barred from running in the election.
Rally organiser Jimmy Sham, one of the public faces of the protest movement who was bloodied in an attack by assailants with hammers last month, also triumphed.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho, who was stabbed by a knife-wielding man while campaigning this month, was among those who lost.
The poll for delegates on the lowest tier of government – which has never had so much attention – will also be a barometer of public patience with the protest movement.
The unrest has seen many violent street clashes with riot police and at times crippled the city’s business and transport networks.
A record 4.1 million people registered to vote in the election, which normally sees a turnout rate of about 40 per cent.
By 8am, long queues had already formed outside the city’s 600 polling stations, while government data showed more than 2.94 million people had voted, putting the turnout rate at 70 per cent.
About 1.47 million voted in the last district elections four years ago, which was itself a record.
In the bitterly divided city, many voters said that they would make their choice not on local issues, but based on their views of the ongoing political turmoil – the worst unrest that Hong Kong has experienced since it switched from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“We want to change the government. We want to use the district elections to express our voice,” said Shirley Ng, 50, a social welfare worker, in Sham Shui Po, a predominantly working class neighbourhood in Kowloon.
“There has been a political awakening that has made people more aware of what the government is doing,” she said.
A few blocks away, voters waited patiently to enter a polling station on Pei Ho Street, an area badly affected by tear gas in recent battles between the police and more radical protesters who set up burning roadblocks.
Mr Wong, an accountant in his late 30s, said this election was especially important to him, revealing that his business had suffered during the unrest, but he added: “If they kill us and take our freedom, what’s the point of giving us good business?”
A record 1,104 candidates were vying for 452 seats.
Although district councils normally deal with mundane issues like recycling and building management, they also have an important say in the selection of the city’s chief executive, who is not directly elected by the public.
If the pro-democracy camp gains control, they could secure six seats in the Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that appoints Hong Kong’s leader.
Cathy Yau, 36, a pan-Democratic candidate standing in Causeway Bay, left her job in the embattled police force to run for office.
The first salvos of tear gas fired at protesters in June had been the tipping point, she said.
The protests, now a rallying cry for democracy, started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
“The government didn’t quickly address the voices that are against the extradition bill,” said Ms Yau.
“I didn’t understand why the government would not give a response.”
Bruce Lui, a senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that both pro-Beijing and pro-democratic parties had afforded new meaning to the local polls this year, to include their stances on recent violence.
“This is way beyond the highlights of the candidates’ manifesto on purely ‘district affairs’,” he said.
The district elections have traditionally been the bastion of pro-Beijing parties, and government supporters also saw Sunday’s poll as a chance to share their opinions.
“I always come out to vote, but this year I am nervous about the political situation of the last few months. Lots of rioters are destroying Hong Kong,” said Kathy, 46, a housewife from Causeway Bay, which has seen some of the largest demonstrations in the city’s history.
In Sha Tin, Hong Kong’s most populous district, Mrs Pang, a housewife in her 70s, said she wanted to vote to restore “harmony” in society. “Social unrest has created unease in my life… it’s had a big impact on me,” she said.
If the pan-Democratic bloc wins, it could exert more pressure on Carrie Lam, the unpopular chief executive to find new ways to resolve the impasse with the protest movement.
Lord David Alton, who joined an international election observers team to monitor the poll, said the crisis needed a “political solution.”
He added: “I would like to see the appointment of a respected mediator from within the region…I would say the most pressing demand at the moment is dealing with the issue of police brutality.”
Denying the public the right to vote for the city’s leader had left a “sense of powerlessness” that had fueled the protests, he argued.
“If great cities like Paris or London or New York can have directly elected mayors then why can’t Hong Kong? The answer to that is that Beijing has opposed it.”