Massive turnout in Hong Kong vote seen as protest referendum
Ken Moritsugu and Eileen Ng
HONG KONG (AP) — Voters in Hong Kong turned out in droves on Sunday in district council elections seen as a barometer of public support for pro-democracy protests that have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese territory for more than five months.
The Electoral Affairs Commission did not immediately provide the final turnout rate after voting ended at 10:30 p.m. But an hour earlier, it said that 69 percent of the city's 4.1 million registered voters had cast ballots. That sharply exceeded the 47 percent turnout in the same election four years ago.
The election was carried out peacefully, with hardly any voters seen wearing protesters' trademark black clothing or face masks.
David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords who is among a group of international observers, hailed the high turnout. "It shows that there is a great groundswell in Hong Kong who believes in democracy," he said.
Election results were expected early Monday.
The normally low-key race for 452 seats in Hong Kong's 18 district councils has taken on symbolic importance in a city polarized by the protests. A strong showing by the opposition would show that the public still supports the protesters, even as they resort to increasing violence.
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 cannons with torrents of gasoline bombs. More than 5,000 people have been arrested.
One voter, Christina Li, said it was important for older people like herself to support the youth who are at the forefront of the protests.
"Younger generations might not be able to enjoy the rights that we are enjoying now," she said as she waited in line outside a polling station. "We cannot take it for granted."
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 protesters' demands include democratic elections for the city's leader and legislature, and an investigation into alleged police brutality in suppressing the protests.
Many voters turned up early to cast their ballots, causing long lines that extended for blocks.
Democracy activist Joshua Wong, the only candidate barred from running in the elections, voted soon after polls opened at 7:30 a.m.
"Even if they censor me out from the ballot, lock me out in prison, it will just encourage me to continue to fight for the future with even stronger determination," he told reporters.
The vote for the district councils, which advise the government on issues of local concern, 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.
Both the ruling camp in Hong Kong and the Chinese central government were hoping that the unrest, which has disrupted daily life and contributed to the city's first recession in a decade, would turn voters against the protesters.
The district councils advocate for community interests and are given a small budget for local projects. Winning candidates will serve a four-year term beginning Jan. 1.
There has been a rare break in the violence in recent days as protesters, anxious to validate their cause through the ballot box, hit the pause button to ensure the polls wouldn't be postponed. Police were out in force near polling stations, but no major incidents were reported.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who is reviled by the protesters, said after voting Sunday morning that the unrest made organizing the election extremely challenging.
"I hope that this stability and calm is not only for today's election, and that the election will show that everyone doesn't want Hong Kong to return to chaos again, that we want a way out of this crisis so that we can have a fresh start," Lam said.
Associated Press videojournalists Dake Kang and Katie Tam contributed to this report.