Hong Kong’s democrats scored a landslide majority in district council elections, which saw a record turnout after six months of anti-government protests, increasing pressure on the Chinese-ruled city’s leader on Monday to listen to calls for democracy.
Sunday’s elections marked a rare weekend lull in the sometimes violent unrest, with democratic candidates securing nearly 90% of the 452 district council seats, broadcaster RTHK reported, despite a strongly resourced and mobilized pro-establishment opposition.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, said in a statement the government respected the results and wished “the peaceful, safe and orderly situation to continue”.
“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,” she said.
The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, Lam said.
Results showed upset wins for democrats against heavyweight pro-Beijing opponents when they started trickling in after midnight on Sunday, causing some voting centers to erupt in loud cheers and chants of “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution Now” – a slogan used by many protesters over the past six months.
Pictures posted online showed people celebrating outside polling stations, popping bottles of champagne.
Regina Ip, a member of the Hong Kong government’s leading advisory body and a former security chief, was loudly heckled on the streets of Central by lunchtime protesters.
“This is the power of democracy. This is a democratic tsunami,” said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat in the Yuen Long district close to China’s border.
The voting ended with no major disruptions across the city of 7.4 million people on a day that saw massive, though orderly, queues form outside voting centers.
“This district election shows that the central government needs to face the demands of a democratic system,” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said. “Today’s result is the first step of our long way to democracy.”
In self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, the Presidential Office expressed “great admiration and support” for the election result.
“The election fully demonstrates Hong Kong people’s absolute will to pursue freedom and democracy,” it said.
The pro-democracy camp only secured around 100 seats at the previous polls four years ago. Almost three million people voted, a record turnout of more than 71% that appeared to have been spurred by the turmoil, almost double the number last time.
Starry Lee, chairwoman of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, apologized for her party’s performance.
“For this major defeat, we do not want to find any excuses and reasons,” said Lee. She said the party rejected her offer to resign earlier on Monday.
Hong Kong’s district councils control some spending and decide a range of livelihood issues such as transport. They also serve as an important grassroots platform to radiate political influence.
“I believe this result is because there are a lot of voters who hope to use this election and their vote to show their support for the (protest) movement, and their five demands, and their dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government,” said former student leader Lester Shum, who won a seat.
The protesters’ demands include full democracy, as well as an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.
“The district council is just one very important path of struggle. In future, we must find other paths of struggle to keep fighting,” Shum said.
The state-run China Daily newspaper said in an editorial on Monday the election “will hopefully have served as an opportunity to return the city to normal”.
“The relative tranquillity the city enjoyed since several days before the election suggests all stakeholders regarded it as an opportunity to air their views,” it said.
China’s foreign ministry, asked about the election, said stopping violence and restoring order in Hong Kong was the paramount task.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for the autonomy of Hong Kong put in place in 1997. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, said the results showed “a commitment to peaceful political participation” and called on Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to address “legitimate grievances”.
“Ignoring assertions of political rights – either through the ballot box or peaceful street protests – is a losing strategy,” she said.
Jimmy Sham, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the anti-government rallies, won his electoral contest, as did Kelvin Lam, who stood in after prominent activist Joshua Wong was barred from running.
A number of pro-Beijing heavyweights including Junius Ho, whose abrasive public comments have made him a hate-figure among many protesters, lost to pro-democracy challengers. He described it on Facebook as “an unusual result”.
The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.