Long lines formed outside Hong Kong polling stations (Photo: Reuters)
Long lines formed outside Hong Kong polling stations (Photo: Reuters)

Hong Kong polls: Record turnout in 1st vote since protests started

  • More than 1.7 million people, or 42% of the financial hub’s electorate, had voted by 2:30 p.m., the government said
  • Results are expected after midnight

HONG KONG : A record number of Hong Kongers cast ballots in district elections by Sunday afternoon, with hours to go before polls were due to close, as they seized the first opportunity to vote after months of increasingly violent protests calling for greater democracy.

More than 1.7 million people, or 42% of the financial hub’s electorate, had voted by 2:30 p.m., the government said. The previous highest turnout was 1.47 million in 2015. Residents faced unusually long lines at polling stations across the city as they came out to vote in the city’s District Council election, with some people waiting since the early morning hours.

“There’s so many people it’s brought tears to my eyes," said Ng Siu-hong, a councilor for the city’s Central and Western District. “It’s good for me but more importantly good for democracy."

Ahead of the election, Hong Kong officials warned the vote could be postponed after some candidates came under attack and the city was paralyzed, with protesters blocking roads and riot police laying siege to a university. Police are dispatching at least two officers clad in riot gear to each polling booth, which are set to close at 10:30 p.m. Results are expected in the early morning hours on Monday.

With the risk of violence ever present, the government said Friday that opening hours for polling stations would be extended if voting can be resumed within 90 minutes of any unexpected disruption. If not, then voting would be suspended until Dec. 1.

The vote comes at a time of unprecedented political polarization in the city, with divisions hardening as the protests turn more violent. While most Hong Kongers support the protesters’ goals of an independent inquiry into police abuses and meaningful elections, they’re also increasingly fed up with tactics including vandalizing transport networks, seizing universities and using medieval-style weapons.

“It’s kind of a referendum on the government and everything that’s happened over the past five months," said Chi-Jia Tschang, who worked at Goldman Sachsa senior director in the Hong Kong office of BowerGroupAsia, which advises companies on business and political risk in the region. “People still want an opportunity to work within the system to have their voices heard. That’s why there’s so much focus on this."

The district council is the lowest rung of government in the city and councilors have few real powers, mostly advising the chief executive on matters like fixing up parks and organizing community activities. Its elections have typically been plagued by low voter turnout and aren’t hugely competitive, compared with those for the Hong Kong’s more powerful Legislative Council.

But they’re being closely watched this year as the first democratic exercise since the protests began in June. Enthusiasm is high among pro-democracy forces, who are hopeful they can pressure Carrie Lam’s administration to become more compromising.

Lord Alton of Liverpool, an independent election observer who will be visiting areas around polling stations in the afternoon, was upbeat about the situation.

“The turnout is significantly up so far on previous elections, more than double from four years ago," he said. “The absence so far during the day of protests means there shouldn’t be any negative reason for people feeling unable to go out to vote."

District councilors help appoint 117 of the 1,200 electors who select the chief executive, which would give pro-democracy forces more choice over candidates who must nevertheless still be approved by Beijing.

The councilors are also directly elected by the public, making it a more democratic process than the contest for the Legislative Council, which has reserved seats for members of the financial hub’s business community.

As she cast her vote, Lam said that the Hong Kong government will continue to support the district councilors. She said she expects a relatively peaceful and calm election even as the city faces an “extremely challenging" situation.

The vote comes as dissatisfaction with the government’s performance increases because of the ongoing protests triggered by legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China. People’s unhappiness with the administration rose to 80% from just 40% a year ago -- well before the unrest began -- according to surveys by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

Lam’s popularity, meanwhile, has fallen to records as peaceful marches five months ago were ignored and demonstrators began clashing with police, with the protest movement morphing into a wider pushback against Beijing’s grip.

“People now realize that you can take things to the streets, but at a very high cost -- and there is a limit to one’s energy," said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in the city’s Legislative Council. “You need changes from within this rotten system."

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