HONG KONG: A record number of Hong Kong people turned out to vote on Sunday (Nov 24) in district elections viewed as a barometer of support for city leader Carrie Lam, who has been besieged by nearly six months of often violent anti-government protests.
Brutal attacks on election candidates in recent weeks have thrust the lowest tier of government in the city into the world spotlight as the government struggles to quieten angry demands for universal suffrage.
The turnout among the 4.13 million registered voters hit 69.04 per cent at 9.30pm on Sunday, the commission said on its website, surpassing the previous high of 47.01 per cent in 2015.
The polls closed at 10.30pm, with first results expected to start trickling in before midnight.
READ: Hong Kong holds local elections amid political tensions
Ming Lee, 26, said she hoped the higher turnout would benefit the pro-democracy camp that is battling some seats that were once uncontested and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates.
"I hope this vote can counter the voice of the pro-establishment, so as to bring in more voices from the democrats," she said. "The social problems encouraged people to vote and to focus on political issues."
Voter Peter Wong, 39, who works in education, said he was not optimistic for change despite the high turnout.
"I don’t mind who wins more seats as long as it’s a fair election," he said.
There was only a small police presence on Sunday, in contrast to reports that riot police planned to guard all polling stations and almost the entire force of 31,000 would be on duty.
Jimmy Sham, a candidate for the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised some of the mass anti-government rallies of recent months, was beaten by men with hammers in October.
"We can see Hongkongers are longing for a chance to express their stand," he said. "We don’t know yet, at the end of the day, if the democrats can win a majority. But I hope our Hong Kong citizens can vote for the future of Hong Kong."
Beijing-backed Lam cast her ballot in front of television cameras and pledged that her government, widely seen as out of touch with the population, would listen "more intensively" to the views of district councils.
She also expressed hope that the relative calm of the past few days would hold. The protests have at times forced the closure of government, businesses and schools in the city's worst political crisis in decades, as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in response to petrol bombs and bows and arrows.
"I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today's election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again, hoping to get out of this dilemma, and let us have a fresh start," Lam said.
A record 1,104 candidates are vying for 452 seats and a record 4.1 million people enrolled to vote for district councillors who control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health.
READ: University campus siege nears end as Hong Kong gears up for election
READ: Hong Kong protests slacken ahead of closely watched poll
"FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS LOST"
If the campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong's Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects its chief executive.
Restaurant manager Jeremy Chan saw the elections in the Asian financial hub as offering Beijing supporters a chance to share their opinions without fear.
"They believe they are fighting for democracy, fighting for Hong Kong, but the rioters only listen to what they want to hear," said the 55-year-old, citing vandalism of businesses seen as pro-Beijing. "Freedom of speech is lost."
The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy.
The unrest now poses one of the biggest challenges to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
UNIVERSITY SIEGE STAGGERS ON
Sunday was the seventh day of a stand-off at Polytechnic University, its campus surrounded by police as some protesters still hid out on the sprawling grounds roamed by first aid workers.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are also responding to perceived police brutality.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula for the autonomy of Hong Kong. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
"I'm so proud to see so many people out here," said bank dealing manager Wong, 32, as he waited to vote in Yuen Long, near the Chinese border. "I hate the government so much. Jul 21 is four months ago, but there is so much anger here."
He was referring to an attack that day by suspected triad gangsters on anti-government protesters and commuters at a nearby railway station.
Young activists are now battling in some seats that were once uncontested and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates.
But Joshua Wong, one of the most prominent activists, whom authorities barred from running, on Sunday urged people to vote to show "our discontent with Beijing".
Follow us on Telegram for the latest on Hong Kong: https://cna.asia/telegram