by William Gallo
Hong Kong pro-democracy forces scored a sweeping victory in local elections Sunday that saw a record number of voters deliver a stunning rebuke to Beijing.
Opposition candidates won nearly 90 percent of contested seats, according to public broadcaster RTHK. The democrats will now control 17 of 18 district councils, after having previously controlled zero.
The vote was a major symbolic blow to pro-China forces that dominate Hong Kong politics, and the latest evidence of continued public support for a five-month-old pro-democracy movement that has become increasingly aggressive.
“Hong Kongers have spoken out, loud and clear. The international community must acknowledge that, almost six months in, public opinion has NOT turned against the movement,” student activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter.
“This is a sweeping victory, far beyond people’s expectations,” David Zweig, professor emeritus at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said.
The vote will not significantly change the balance of power in Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic political system. District council members have no power to pass legislation; they deal mainly with hyperlocal issues, such as noise complaints and bus stop locations.
However, the district council vote is seen as one of the most reliable indicators of public opinion, since it is the only fully democratic election in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly executive Carrie Lam issued a statement saying the government respects the results of the election, and that it would listen humbly to the opinions of the members of the public and reflect on them seriously.
Nearly 3 million people voted in the election — a record high for Hong Kong, and more than double the turnout of the previous district council election in 2015.
Voters formed long lines that snaked around city blocks outside polling stations across the territory, many waiting more than an hour to vote.
“This amount of people I’ve never seen. There are so many people,” said Felix, who works in the real estate industry and voted in the central business district.
By nighttime, most of the long lines at voting stations had tapered off, but nearby sidewalks remained filled with candidates and their supporters who held signs and chanted slogans in an attempt to persuade passersby to cast last-minute votes.
“I’m tired, but I think it’s more important to fight,” said Elvis Yam, who waited in line for an hour to vote in the morning and then volunteered to hold a campaign sign for a pro-democracy candidate in the University District.
Police promised a heavy security presence at voting locations. But outside many polling stations, there was no visible police presence. At others, teams of riot police waited in nearby vans. There were no reports of major clashes.
Hong Kong has seen five months of pro-democracy protests. The protests have escalated in recent weeks, with smaller groups of hard-core protesters engaging in fierce clashes with police.
The vote shows that, despite the violence, Hong Kong society continues to support the push for democratic reforms, said Zweig, who heads Transnational China Consulting.
“If the government itself doesn’t respond in some significant way, you’re going to get your million man march again. You’re going to get people back on the streets,” he said.
Even though district councils have little power, the vote could affect how the territory’s more influential Legislative Council and chief executive are selected in the future.
District councilors are able to select a small number of people to the 1,200-member election committee that chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive. They also have the ability to select or run for certain seats in the Legislative Council.
“That’s a big deal,” said Emily Lau, a former Legislative Council member and prominent member of the pro-democracy camp. “Because of this constitutional linkage, it makes the significance of the district council much bigger than its powers show you.”
Hong Kong saw a major surge in voter registration, particularly among young people. Nearly 386,000 people have registered to vote in the past year, the most since at least 2003.
Many Hong Kongers are concerned about what they see as an erosion of the “one country, two systems” policy that Beijing has used to govern Hong Kong since it was returned by Britain in 1997.
China said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” principle, but has slammed the protesters as rioters. In some cases, Chinese state media have compared the protesters to the terror groups Taliban or Islamic State.
In an apparent response to the Hong Kong elections, the People’s Daily, a Communist Party-controlled paper, posted a video on Twitter documenting what it said was the U.S. history of intervention in foreign elections, including in Hong Kong.
U.S. President Donald Trump has been inconsistent when talking about the protests, in some cases calling them riots and in other cases saying he supports them.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for all sides to refrain from violence, but said the Hong Kong government “bears primary responsibility” for the conflict.
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William Gallo is the VOA Seoul bureau chief and regional correspondent.
Images “Hong Kong Votes” by Voice of America.