HONG KONG: Hong Kong's democrats on Monday (Nov 25) scored a landslide majority in the district council elections, which saw a record turnout after six months of anti-government protests, increasing pressure on the city's embattled leadership.
Pro-democracy candidates grabbed 388 seats - a stunning net gain of 263 - according to local media, with the establishment holding on to only 59. Five went to independents.
This translates to 17 of the 18 district councils coming under the control of the democrats, local media reported. All the district councils had been under pro-establishment control since the 2015 elections.
Almost 3 million people voted, a record turnout of more than 71 per cent was almost double the turnout at the last district elections four years ago. A record 1,104 candidates stood for elections.
"There are a lot of voters who hope to use this election and their vote to show their support for the (protest) movement and their five demands, and their dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government," said Lester Shum, a former student leader who got elected.
"That's why so many people queued for one or two hours, no matter man or woman, young or old, they came out to vote."
WHY IS THE RESULT IMPORTANT?
Pro-democracy groups have seized on the council polls as a chance to prove the depth of public support for the protest movement, which Beijing-aligned chief executive Carrie Lam had dismissed as the work of a radical fringe.
With an annual budget of around HK$1 million (US$128,000), district councils chiefly oversee community-level tasks and their elections generated little buzz in the past.
But rising political discontent in recent years has turned them into an increasingly important barometer of public opinion. That is because balloting for the 18 councils is the only forum for full and direct elections across the city.
"Under the current political environment, a district council election that has come close to a universal suffrage situation clearly reflects people's views and political leanings," said winning democrat Andrew Chiu.
Although the district councils themselves have little political sway, their membership affects the election of Hong Kong's lawmaking body and chief executive.
Some candidates for next year's legislative elections will be drawn from the councils. These legislators will be chosen by a mix of popular vote and industry groups stacked with China loyalists in a system that ensures Beijing's control.
The district councils will also contribute about one-tenth of the 1,200 members of the Beijing-controlled electoral college that chooses the chief executive.
WHAT CAUSED THE PROTESTS?
After more than a century and a half as a British colony, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997 under an agreement in which Beijing pledged to afford the financial hub a "high degree" of autonomy.
But moves by Beijing and the Hong Kong's administration in recent years have spurred rising fear that the unique freedoms credited for the city's success were being undermined.
These included a 2014 decision by China's rubber-stamp legislature that effectively ruled out universal suffrage and was seen as a bid to increase Beijing's control over the city's nominees for chief executive.
This year outrage erupted against a now-withdrawn Bill introduced by Lam's administration that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
The protesters have subsequently issued five demands, including direct elections of the legislature and chief executive, and a probe into allegations of police brutality against demonstrators.
Chinese University's political scientist Ma Ngok said the poll results dismissed the government's previous claims that public support was on their side.
"This is a big slap in the face because the public has shown their real position in record numbers," he said.
Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer on electoral politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that most people consider the district councils elections "a referendum".
"We see that the pro-democracy camp mobilised people based on 'police brutality' and 'bad governance', while the pro-establishment camp views this election as 'saying no to violence'," said Choy.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Choy added: "The next move of the Hong Kong situation will be determined by responses from the Hong Kong government and Beijing after this election."
Validation at the ballot box is expected to give fresh impetus to the protest movement and encourage reform advocates to step up their demands.
Before counting was even completed on Monday, leading figures in the democratic camp called on Lam and her government to immediately grant the protesters' demands.
Some have called for the entire city executive to step down.
Various public activities are planned this week to keep the pressure on and some have called for a major rally on Sunday.
HOW WILL THE GOVERNMENT REACT?
After the establishment's shellacking became clear on Monday, Lam said her government would "listen humbly" to the voice of the people, but her hands are tied by China's ruling Communist Party.
Responding to preliminary results of the elections earlier, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi underlined that Hong Kong is a part of China "no matter what happens".
"It is very doubtful that there will be any concessions," Hong Kong-based China politics analyst Willy Lam said.
"That would have to come from Beijing and I don't see anything from statements by (Chinese President) Xi Jinping or other officials suggesting they would make concessions."
A pro-Beijing lawmaker who lost in the election Horace Cheung acknowledged that the current "political sentiment" cost him his seat.
"I have 500 more votes this time (than four years ago), but the high turnout (made) me fail," he said. "That’s the reality."
Another losing pro-establishment lawmaker Alice Mak said: "Today's result is the voters' decision. We respect it.
"But, what we really want is that we finally find peace. We don't want to mess up Hong Kong again."
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