Protests drive record poll turnout in Hong Kong

The vote is the closest Hong Kongers get to direct representation in next year's legislative elections

Photo: Reuters Long lines formed outside Hong Kong polling stations.

Hong Kong's voters turned out in record numbers Sunday for local council elections that the city's pro-democracy movement hopes will pile pressure on the Beijing-backed government to heed their demands after months of violent protest. According to the Electoral Affairs Commission, a record 56% of the 4.13 million citizens registered to vote had cast their ballots by Sunday evening.

It was the highest turnout in Hong Kong's history of district council elections post handover from British rule, with five hours of voting still to go.

The selection of 452 councillors - handling community-level concerns such as bus routes and garbage collection - traditionally generates little excitement. The territory's top-level legislature is elected by a mix of popular vote and seats reserved for industry groups stacked with China loyalists, which ensures Beijing's control of the city of around 7.5 million. The vote has however taken on new significance following months of political unrest, with voters hoping that weakening that grip will give their movement fresh momentum.

"Even though one ballot can only help a little, I still hope it can bring change to society and support street protests in some way," 19-year-old student Michael Ng, voting for the first time, told AFP.

Especially since polls are not entirely symbolic: some candidates for next year's legislative elections will be drawn from district councillors, and the bodies also will contribute 117 members to the 1,200-strong Beijing-controlled electoral college that chooses the chief executive. The vote is thus the closest Hong Kongers get to direct representation.

"We are voting to give our judgement on what has happened... we're also voting to make a choice for what is yet to come," said Jimmy Sham, a pro-democracy candidate and a prominent figure in the largely leaderless protest movement.

Hong Kong has been battered by months of mass rallies and violent clashes pitting police against protesters who are agitating for direct popular elections of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's government, as well as a probe into alleged police brutality. But protests have been muted in recent days after pro-democracy figures urged citizens to cease disruptions to avoid giving the government an excuse to delay or suspend the polls.

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