Hong Kong’s protest vote: On Carrie Lam's setback

Polls to the district councils allowed protesters to seek a vote for democratic change

November 26, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:19 pm IST

The Hong Kong administration led by Carrie Lam suffered a stinging setback on Sunday when voters rejected outright establishment candidates in elections to the city’s 18 district councils. Ms. Lam herself had indicated that the vote would be a proxy referendum on the way she handled months-long street protests, saying that a silent majority backed her administration. The protesters asked voters to express their support for the agitation through the vote to the district councils, the only authority in the city being selected by full universal suffrage. They seem to have listened to the protesters. A record 2.94 million voters turned up, representing 71.2% of the total registered electorate, up from 47% in the 2015 election. The initial results suggest that pro-democracy parties captured 17 of the 18 councils from the establishment parties. In the 452-member district council, pro-democracy parties have won 392 seats, while the strength of the establishment parties, which controlled 292 seats before the polls, was reduced to a historic low — 60 seats. Hong Kong’s city council elections are otherwise a sleepy affair. The councils have limited powers, mainly pertaining to local issues such as waste collection and maintaining public spaces. What drew international attention to this year’s election was the violent street protests. And with their overwhelming mandate to the pro-democracy parties, Hong Kong voters have made it clear where they stand on the issue.

Protests broke out almost six months ago when the city government pushed a legislation that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China. Both the government and the protesters have committed a series of mistakes ever since. The government initially refused to withdraw the extradition Bill despite mounting public anger. When the protests snowballed, the administration backed off on the Bill, but it was too little and too late. The protesters now demand Ms. Lam’s resignation, an investigation into the way the police handled the protests, more democracy and electoral reforms. The city government rejected these demands as “wishful thinking” and adopted an increasingly aggressive approach to quell the agitation, which led to pitched battles between the protesters and the police. Both sides used force (the protesters shut down the city’s main airport briefly, occupied a university and used Molotov cocktails and bricks to attack the security personnel, while the police fired hundreds of rounds of rubber bullets and tear gas shells to control the crowd) and the prolonged demonstrations have disrupted city life and pushed its once-thriving economy into recession. The crisis has entered into a stalemate. The question is whether the election results would sway the government to take a more conciliatory approach to resolve the problem. Ms. Lam has said that she would respect the mandate. One way of doing that is offering to talk to the protesters, seeking common ground to end violence and restore order in the city.

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