Hong Kong elections draw record turnouts as pro-democracy protesters challenge establishment

Hong Kong’s district council elections drew an overwhelming, record turnout Sunday as residents weighed in on months of tumultuous, pro-democracy protests sweeping the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The Electoral Affairs Commission said more than 2.9 million residents, or 71.2% of the electorate, had cast votes. Voters were deciding on 452 seats in 18 district councils, normally a relatively mundane election that four years ago drew a then-record 47% turnout.

A government show of force, in the form of thousands of riot police providing security at every polling site, apparently did not intimidate voters Sunday. Many voters remained at the sites after polls closed, warily watching officials count the votes.

Several pro-democracy protest leaders were among the winners of the first seats to be announced. But it was too early to determine voting trends.

“It’s a significant message to the authorities that people here believe in democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” said British House of Lords member David Alton, an international election observer. “So far the elections have been conducted peacefully and appear fair and well regulated.”

Election workers empty a ballot box to count votes at a polling station in Hong Kong, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (Photo: Ng Han Guan, AP)

Council members handle day-to-day operations of the city, handling complaints and overseeing transportation and other public facilities. In 2015, almost 300 seats were won by pro-establishment candidates now led by controversial Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Pro-democracy candidates claimed 126 seats.

However, a government extradition proposal earlier this year to allow suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China sparked massive, sometimes violent protests. Lam’s government withdrew the proposal, but protesters continue to press demands for more freedoms and investigations into police behavior during the protests.

Last week, Hong Kong students armed with bows and arrows and hurling gasoline bombs battled police firing tear gas and blasting water cannons. The violence, the latest in a long line of angry clashes between protesters and police, shut down roads and transit stations and forced all schools to close for the territory’s 1 millions students.

Hong Kong was controlled by Great Britain until 1997, when it ceded control to China as a special administrative region that was promised a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Pro-democracy residents of Hong Kong have long accused China of encroaching on that autonomy. 

Hong Kong students battle police: Schools shut down for 1 million students

Sunday’s election comes three days after the U.S. Congress sent President Donald Trump the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The bill would require an annual review to determine whether China has provided sufficient autonomy to allow Hong Kong to keep the special legal treatment it receives from the United States.The bill, passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, was designed to show support for the protesters.

Trump, embroiled in difficult trade talks with mainland China, has not said whether he would sign the legislation. A veto, however, likely would be overridden. The bill also would become law after 10 days  if Trump simply elected not to sign it.

China says U.S. Senate blind on facts: Hong Kong well-being must be priority

The Chinese mainland government of President Xi Jinping has repeatedly chastised the U.S. for attempting to interfere with China’s internal affairs and fueling the unrest.

“The issue Hong Kong faces is not about human rights or democracy, but about stopping violence and chaos, upholding rule of law and restoring order as soon as possible,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.

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