HONG KONG - Hong Kongers voted in record numbers Sunday, and avoided anticipated clashes, during a local election that is widely seen as a de facto referendum on months of pro-democracy protests.
Voters formed long lines that snaked around city blocks outside polling stations across the territory, many waiting over an hour to vote in local elections that are usually viewed as relatively inconsequential.
District Council members who are being elected by Hong Kong voters have no power to pass legislation. But the election is the first chance for residents to vote since a wave of anti-government protests erupted in June, creating bitter divides in Hong Kong society.
As of early Sunday evening, voter turnout appeared to be on pace to double that of the previous District Council election in 2015, according to government figures. It also easily exceeded the previous record turnout set during 2016 Legislative Council elections.
“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.
Mr. Ma, a voter in the South Horizons West constituency, said he sees the election as a continuation of the protest movement. “Many would like to have a change. So this election is very important," he says.
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 stood by in nearby vans. There were no reports of major clashes.
Sending a message
Hong Kongers are choosing more than 400 members of 18 district councils scattered across the tiny territory. The district councils essentially serve as advisory bodies for local decisions such as building roads or schools.
“I think the political message is more important than anything else,” Ma Ngok, a political scientist and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said. “If the democrats really score a landslide victory, it will show very clearly that the public is in support of the movement.”
“The district councils have been dominated by the pro-establishment for years. We want to have more democrats to be elected to the district councils,” says Ms. Kwok, another voter in South Horizons West.
Hong Kong has seen five months of pro-democracy protests. The protests initially took the form of massive demonstrations against a reviled extradition bill, which could have resulted in Hong Kongers being tried in China’s politicized court system.
The protests have escalated in recent weeks, with smaller groups of hard-core protesters destroying public infrastructure, defacing symbols of state power and clashing with police. Protesters defend the moves as an appropriate reaction to police violence and the government’s refusal to meet their demands.
Despite the protester violence, polls suggest the movement still enjoys widespread public support. Meanwhile, the approval of Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly chief executive, Carrie Lam, has fallen to a record low of about 20%.
Under Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic system, district councils have little power. But the vote could affect how the territory’s more influential Legislative Council and chief executive are selected in the future.
“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.”
The pro-democracy camp has tried to use the protests as a mobilizing force ahead of the vote, and is fielding an unprecedented number of candidates.
But they have a lot of ground to make up. Pro-government forces make up the majority in all 18 district councils, with the so-called “pan-democrats” taking up only about 25% of the overall seats, Ma said.
Hong Kong has seen a major surge in voter registrations, particularly among young people. Nearly 386,000 people have registered to vote in the past year — the most since at least 2003 — according to the South China Morning Post.
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.