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Hong Kong elections: Pro-democracy candidates win huge victory


Pro-democracy candidates achieved a staggering victory in Hong Kong’s local elections on Sunday — a peaceful but pointed rebuke of pro-Beijing leadership after six months of sustained protests in the territory.

Sunday’s elections were a landslide for pro-democracy candidates, who won majorities in 17 out of 18 of Hong Kong’s district councils; previously they had majorities in none. Pro-Beijing candidates held 300 seats; they now hold just 58. Indeed, out of 452 seats up for grabs, pro-democracy candidates won about 80 percent, flipping more than half.

Turnout also hit record highs, with more than 2.9 million people voting — more than 70 percent of eligible voters. By comparison, turnout was just 47 percent in 2015. The swell in newly registered voters — approximately 390,000 — helped drive the record-high showing.

The results are an unmistakable reprimand against the pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong, and to Beijing itself. Hong Kong has been engulfed in weekly pro-democracy protests since June, some of which have turned increasingly tense and violent in recent months. And yet, the message from Hongkongers was unequivocal: a rejection of Beijing’s encroachment and a clear mandate for democracy.

A controversial extradition bill kicked off the protests, drawing millions to the streets. But the list of demands expanded as the demonstrations continued for months. Universal suffrage is among them. And though the Hong Kong government scrapped that extradition legislation in September, the protests only escalated and have become a much more explicit anti-government uprising. (Fury against Hong Kong’s police response is also fueling the demonstrations now.)

The Hong Kong government, throughout it all, has insisted that the protesters are rogue elements, and may be the most vocal, but aren’t representative of the majority of Hongkongers.

But the swing from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy candidates in this local election upends that narrative. “The silent majority is more of a metaphor than a real group of people,” Samson Yuen, an assistant politics professor at Lingnan University, told the Atlantic, following the election. “The voting results tell us it doesn’t exist.”

The results of Hong Kong’s local elections are a symbolic victory for pro-democracy activists. But they matter in other ways, too.

Hong Kong’s governing structure is very complicated, but the district council elections are one of the few elections in Hong Kong that are almost fully democratic.

That’s not the case for the Legislative Council, the body that governs the entire territory, which is only partially directly elected, or for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was chosen by a 1,200-person committee that’s largely skewed to favor pro-Beijing candidates.

At the same time, Hong Kong’s councils don’t have a ton of power outside of individual districts; they’re mostly focused on neighborhood and quality of life issues. And usually, that’s what candidates run on.

But not so much this year, where the months-long protests colored the contest and turned it into another battleground for the future of Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy candidates, specifically Joshua Wong, a leader in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, was banned from running. Candidates in both the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps were violently attacked in the lead-up to the election.

As demonstrations became increasingly tense ahead of the vote — including the shooting of a protester, and the siege of a university campus, which continued through election day — many feared that the Hong Kong government would cancel the district council elections altogether.

Instead, Hongkongers came out in force, with many lining up early to vote over rumors that polling stations could be closed if violence broke out.

The overwhelming victory of these pro-democracy candidate is not merely symbolic. It will give them greater power within Hong Kong’s government.

Specifically, they will now be able to control 117 seats in the 1,200-member committee that chooses Hong Kong’s executive.

That committee is stacked with Beijing loyalists, but now the pro-democracy camp will have a little bit more influence in 2022, when the next Hong Kong chief executive election comes around. Five seats on the 70-person Legislative Council are also reserved for district councilors.

And Beijing and Hong Kong’s government won’t be able to ignore these results. The protesters are channelling a deeper frustration in Hong Kong.

Even those who sympathize with the protesters have expressed discomfort with the violence and vandalization at times, but the results of the election underscore a very real discontent with the status quo.

Lam, addressing the election results, said in a statement Monday, that the Hong Kong government would respect the election results:

There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.

The Hong Kong government, she continued, “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.”

But Beijing didn’t sound quite so conciliatory. “Any attempt to disrupt Hong Kong and damage [its] stability and prosperity will not succeed,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on the sidelines of the G20 ministers meeting.

Of course, a peaceful, fair, and democratic election should be interpreted as the opposite of disruptive — and that’s sort of where the whole conundrum lies.

Hong Kong is a semiautonomous territory of China, and it will hold on to this special status until 2047. The Chinese government has increasingly wanted to bring Hong Kong into its orbit, though some of its most blatant attempts — including a 2014 electoral reform package that set off the Umbrella Movement and the extradition bill that ignited these current protests — have been largely rejected by Hong Kong.

Conceding to protesters and granting them greater democratic rights may quell the protests, which China definitely wants. But Beijing also sees granting those rights as a long-term threat to its one-party rule, not just in Hong Kong but elsewhere in China.

Which is why the current impasse prevails, as do the protests. Both sides see caving as something of an existential threat.

But the resounding victory of the pro-democracy parties in this recent election is still a stunning pushback against Beijing. And it looks unlikely to slow the protests either.

On Monday, dozens of newly elected pro-democracy lawmakers gathered in front of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in support of some protesters who remain trapped inside after police stormed the campus last week, cornering hundreds of protesters inside who don’t want to leave because they fear arrest.

These new lawmakers peacefully called on police to let the remaining protesters go free. It was a reminder of just how shocking these local district elections were: Hong Kong’s pro-democracy uprising, which has roiled the territory for months, has newfound legitimacy, in the election of hundreds of lawmakers.

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