Explainer

What Just Happened in Hong Kong’s Elections?

Hong Kongers turned out in droves to defeat pro-Beijing candidates.

Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip
Pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip is escorted away by riot police as pro-democracy supporters shout slogans towards her in the Central area of Hong Kong on Nov. 25. Leo Ramirez/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kongers delivered a resounding blow to the city’s political establishment on Sunday, when the district council elections saw record turnout and an unprecedented victory for the pro-democracy camp. Pro-democracy candidates took nearly 90 percent of the available seats, tripling their previous total. What does this mean for the future of a city torn by protest and under the shadow of Beijing’s power?

Why do these elections matter?

Hong Kong’s district councils have little power, and their elections generally attract little interest, with many candidates in previous years running unopposed. One of the main demands of the protesters who have taken to Hong Kong’s streets this year is true universal suffrage—currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive is selected by a council of just 1,200 people and must be approved by Beijing. The Legislative Council elections that determine the makeup of the government itself are heavily skewed by what are known as functional constituencies, special interest groups generally linked to the pro-Beijing camp that get to determine 30 out of the 70 available seats.

The district councils have long been a pro-establishment stronghold. Chinese Communist Party-aligned parties such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the New People’s Party, and the Beijing-backed Federation of Trade Unions enjoy better funding and strong coordination, rarely running candidates against each other. Pro-democracy parties have been seen as more focused on broader concerns of suffrage and reform, while the “blue” pro-Beijing parties had a reputation for being solid on quotidian concerns such as road maintenance, community activities, and livelihood issues.

But Sunday’s ballot was seen by both the establishment and pro-democracy sides as a referendum on the five demands of the ongoing protests and the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Political parties themselves play a relatively minor role in Hong Kong compared to most systems; the pro-democracy side is an alliance of several small parties, while the establishment is centered around the DAB but includes other parties, and both camps have numerous independent representatives.

Since June, Hong Kong has seen massive protests—originally over a planned extradition law, but they have swollen to take on police brutality and the lack of democracy in the city. A pro-establishment victory would have buttressed Lam’s suggestions that the protests are the work of unruly extremists not supported by the silent majority. The landslide pan-democrat win marked a clear refutation of that claim. “This is also a warning for the government, that the public insists on the five demands,” said the Democratic Party’s Roy Kwong.

Lam’s official statement, released Monday, promised that the government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.”

So how did the elections turn out so well for the democrats?

The election might not have happened at all. In the preceding weeks, government figures such as Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip had raised postponing the vote or canceling it outright for security reasons. The announcement that riot police would be at polling stations added to public disquiet, though police presence was minimal on the day of the election.

Fears that voting hours might be curtailed helped drive a morning surge in turnout. By 1:30 p.m., total turnout had already exceeded any previous district council ballot, and by the close of voting at 10:30 p.m., with nearly 3 million votes cast and 71.2 percent turnout, it was the biggest election ever held in Hong Kong. Turnout in 2015 was 1.4 million voters—47 percent of those registered—and handed 70 percent of district council seats to pro-Beijing parties.

Pan-democrats’ best-case scenario that morning had been for the pro-democracy “yellow” camp to control a narrow majority of district councils. The outcome far exceeded that. Seventeen of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils are now controlled by pan-democrats. The lone holdout, Islands district, chose pro-democracy candidates in seven of its 10 directly elected seats, but the pro-Beijing camp retains the balance of power thanks to ex officio seats given to chairs of the rural committees, local bodies representing indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories area.

Prominent protest figures such as Jimmy Sham, Tommy Cheung, and Lester Shum all won their seats, while several high-profile pro-Beijing incumbents were unseated, including the controversial Junius Ho, who is suspected of links to both organized crime and the attacks on protesters and commuters in Yuen Long on July 21, has called for opponents of the government to be “killed mercilessly,” and has been accused of making death threats against a political rival.

On a practical level, the pan-democrats’ Democratic Coalition for DC Election achieved its biggest success since its founding in 2007, minimizing clashes by getting nearly 400 candidates onto its endorsement list. But more than anything, the protests—and the government’s reaction to them—drove the results.

Registered voter numbers swelled by some 300,000 in the last year, driven by reaction to the protest movement and a pro-democracy registration campaign fronted by musician Denise Ho, whose music is banned from the mainland due to her politics. The DAB and its pro-Beijing allies did see an increase in total votes. Candidates from the Federation of Trade Unions totaled over 180,000 votes, almost double their 2015 result. But that rise was overwhelmed by the opposition, galvanized by what supporters see as an uncaring government, backed by a brutal and unaccountable police force.

One own goal from the establishment directly related to the district council election was the decision to bar the prominent activist Joshua Wong from running in the South Horizons West constituency. Left to his own devices, Wong would have been just another pro-democracy candidate. Instead, the decision—involving a bizarre episode in which an official abruptly vanished on supposed sick leave before her replacement announced Wong’s disqualification—drew international headlines and was a highly visible example of a rigged system. Wong’s replacement candidate, Kelvin Lam, unseated the DAB’s Judy Chan with 57 percent of the vote.

What does this mean for the future?

Despite the unmistakable symbolic victory, democracy activists are not universally celebrating. District councils are “powerless,” the political writer Kong Tsung-gan wrote on Twitter. “We need universal suffrage for LegCo & Chief Executive. We voted for a yellow government but everywhere we look, those in positions of power are red.”

In the short term, it’s possible that the results will empower relative moderates within the Beijing camp, perhaps allowing concessions on issues such as an inquiry into the police or the dropping of charges against protesters. But Chinese media is already blaming imagined foreign interference in the elections for the results—and a harsh reaction by a disappointed Beijing, which expected a victory, is also entirely plausible.

However, the district councils do hold a surprising amount of power. Their members take up 117 seats in the 1,200-strong Election Committee that votes for Hong Kong’s chief executive, and they have influence over seats for sports and culture representatives. One activist who views this as key is Benny Tai, a legal scholar jailed for his part in 2014’s Occupy Central protests. In 2017, Tai proposed a coordinated voting scheme for the district council elections that he called “Project Storm,” designed to disrupt Beijing’s ability to control the chief executive election process. “We should … make full use of every competitive election available by making them no longer manipulable and thus force the local and central government to change the system,” Tai told the South China Morning Post that year.

The Election Committee only chooses from Beijing-approved candidates, but chief executives have been selected by small margins. One of Carrie Lam’s nicknames is “777”—the number of votes she got when elected. Her predecessor C.Y. Leung, known as “689,” had an even narrower victory.

“The landslide victory of District Council elections means that on top of its 300 votes within professional and social services sub-sectors, democrats will gain 117 votes in District Council sub-sector. … If local capital chooses to work with democrats, they probably will get enough votes to decide the Chief Executive on their own,” the sociologist Brian Fong said on Twitter.

Any such effect on who next runs Hong Kong must wait until the next chief executive election in 2022 and survive any procedural changes Beijing imposes in the meantime. A chief executive seen as too favorable to the democrats would almost certainly be blocked by Beijing, causing another political crisis. For now, the pro-democracy camp must content itself with the pressure the outcome puts on Lam.

“Now is the time for the government to respond,” the reelected Southern District council member Paul Zimmerman said in a speech. “Don’t fail Hong Kong again.”

Michael Delaney is a pseudonym for a Hong Kong-based writer.

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