Record turnout in H.K. district elections amid political crisis
HONG KONG, Kyodo - An unprecedented number of voters turned out Sunday in Hong Kong's first public elections since mass pro-democracy demonstrations rocked the city and damaged its economy.
The district council elections are widely seen as a barometer of public opinion of the increasingly violent protests, which China claims are only supported by a minority of radical separatists.
By 8:30 p.m., about 66.5 percent of the 4.1 million eligible voters had cast ballots, well exceeding the overall turnout rate of 47 percent recorded in the last election in 2015, Registration and Electoral Office figures showed.
The 2015 figure was the highest-ever turnout for district council elections since Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997. By comparison, the biggest turnout in an election for the more powerful legislative council was recorded in 2016 at 58 percent.
The city notably saw a nearly 386,000 gain in registered voters in the past year, with the surge driven by a more than 12 percent increase in voter registrations by those aged 18 to 35.
Less than an hour after polling began at 7:30 a.m., officials urged voters to wait patiently while some voting stations were overwhelmed with long queues.
Voting booths closed on schedule at 10:30 p.m. but the election authority said anyone still in line at the time would be allowed to vote.
Aside from a lingering stand-off between radical protesters and police at a university in Kowloon, voting took place without incident and no anti-government demonstrations were reported in the city.
The turnout in the first hour of polling was nearly four times higher than what it was in 2015, as rumors circulated online that polling stations could close early due to possible violence.
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, whom the government barred from running in the election due to his advocacy of self-determination for Hong Kong, was among the early voters along with the city's leader Carrie Lam.
Urging residents to use their vote to show their discontent with the Chinese central government “while we still have an election,” Wong told reporters Beijing's attempt to censor him out of the ballot only encourages him “to continue to fight for the future with a stronger determination.”
Next to a separate polling station, Lam stressed the importance of district representatives in the Hong Kong government after casting her vote.
She said organizing this year's election amid the months-long unrest was “extremely challenging” but the city “should have a relatively peaceful and calm environment” for voting.
A total of 1,090 candidates are vying for the 452 directly elected seats up for grabs in the 479-seat district council, which is elected every four years.
It functions as an advisory body on government policies and helps build political support for the government. While councillors cannot pass laws or make decisions on policies, they make up 117 of the 1,200-member election committee that picks the city's chief executive.
Safety of the election was a key concern among both officials and the public as a number of pro-democracy councilors and candidates have been physically attacked on the campaign trail, while pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was stabbed earlier this month.
Riot police were stationed outside some polling stations as a precautionary measure.
Meanwhile, about 30 students remain inside Polytechnic University, with their blockade now in its eighth day. Many of them are reportedly suffering mental and physical exhaustion.
“We condemn the police for illegal confinement, breaching our personal freedom and rights to vote,” said one of the two men who came out to meet the press on Sunday.
A number of metro stations were vandalized by hardcore protesters in recent months. Demonstrators have also this month caused traffic chaos by blocking several key roads and a cross-harbor tunnel.
A record 47 percent of the eligible 3.12 million electors voted in the last election in 2015, in which pro-democracy parties nabbed some 100 seats while the pro-establishment camp won about 300.
The protests, sparked by a now-withdrawn bill that sought to allow extraditions to mainland China, have been ongoing since June, presenting the government with its biggest challenge yet since the territory's handover.
The results will be available early Monday morning. (Kyodo)