Pro-democracy candidates won nearly half of the seats in Hong Kong’s local elections, according to partial returns, as voters sent a clear signal of support for the anti-government protests that have rocked the Chinese territory for more than five months.
A record 71% of the city’s 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots on Sunday, well exceeding the 47% turnout in the same election four years ago, election officials said.
So far, pro-democracy candidates have won 201 out of 452 seats in 18 district councils. Previously, the bloc had fewer than a third of the seats.
Among the winners were former student leaders and a candidate who replaced prominent activist Joshua Wong, the only person barred from running in the election.
Rally organiser Jimmy Sham, who was beaten by hammer-wielding assailants last month, also triumphed, as did a pro-democracy lawmaker who had part of his ear bitten off by an assailant.
Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party suffered the biggest setback, with at least 155 of its 182 candidates defeated.
Among the losing incumbents was controversial politician Junius Ho, who was stabbed with a knife while campaigning this month.
The pro-democracy camp hailed its strong gains in the normally low-key race as a “victory” for the Hong Kong people.
Candidates said the city’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam must heed protesters’ demands including free elections for the city’s leader and legislature, and an independent probe into alleged police brutality.
“We won a small battle today but it shows that Hong Kong people have a chance to win the war. We will fight on,” said Henry Sin Ho-fai, a pro-democracy candidate who won.
The record turnout showed “a great groundswell in Hong Kong who believes in democracy”, said David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords who is among the international election observers invited by Hong Kong’s civil society groups.
During the months of demonstrations, protesters have smashed storefronts of businesses seen as sympathetic to China, torched toll booths, shut down a major tunnel and engaged in pitched battles with police, countering tear gas volleys and water cannon with torrents of petrol bombs.
More than 5,000 people have been arrested in the unrest that contributed to Hong Kong’s first recession in a decade.
Many people in Hong Kong share the concern of protesters about growing Chinese influence over the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997.
The protests started in June over a now-abandoned extradition bill that would send criminal suspects for trials in mainland China. But the movement has since swelled into an anti-China campaign.
Voting was peaceful amid tight security, with hardly anyone seen wearing protesters’ trademark black clothing or face masks. Many voters turned up early to cast their ballots, leading to long lines that extended for blocks.
The vote is the only fully democratic one in Hong Kong. Members of the legislature are chosen partly by popular vote and partly by interest groups representing different sectors of society, and the city’s leader is picked by a 1,200-member body that is dominated by supporters of the central government in Beijing.