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Hong Kong voters turn out in droves for local election seen as litmus test for protest movement

PRC and Hong Kong flags (Alan Mak/WikiCommons)

Jay Wong had never voted in Hong Kong’s district council elections before, deeming the races too local to be worth the bother.

But on Sunday, the 28-year-old music teacher made sure to wake up early to cast her vote.

“I had to because I don’t want the establishment candidates to win,” said Wong, using the name to describe supporters of the government in Beijing.

First-time voters like Wong who are sympathetic to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has roiled this city for nearly six months, have helped propel massive voter turnout.

All across Hong Kong, lines of voters snaked outside polling stations — a most unusual sight for an election that’s akin to city council races in the United States.

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This is no ordinary election, however. Viewed as a referendum on the protests that have divided this semiautonomous city of 7.4 million, the election will help gauge popular opinion and validate one side over the other.

A record 4.13 million people registered to vote for the elections, 440,000 more than the last district council elections in 2015. Anti-establishment parties also are fielding a record number of candidates.

The results won’t be known until hours after polls close at 10:30 p.m., but early indications are that the heavy turnout favors a pro-democracy camp that has traditionally been badly outnumbered in local elections.

By the afternoon, voter turnout had already exceeded numbers seen in the last district council election in 2015.

“This is unprecedented,” said Eric Lee, an assistant to district councilor Andrew Chiu, a member of the pro-democracy camp. “People generally don’t wake up this early on a Sunday.”

The election for 452 district council seats offered a rare respite from the unrest and violence that have beset Hong Kong nearly every weekend since the summer.

Online message boards frequented by demonstrators urged people to refrain from protesting Sunday, acknowledging that the elections were precisely the sort of peaceful expression of self-determination that the movement was trying to preserve in Hong Kong.

“I’m voting for the first time so that the younger generation can still have freedom,” said Suker So, a 35-year-old air-conditioner repairman walking out of a polling station in the suburb of Sheung Shui that was shrouded in tear gas a week earlier.

Unlike legislators, who are chosen, partly, by different interest groups, district councilors are the only public officials chosen directly by voters.

Though the district council is a largely consultative body with no lawmaking powers, the camp with the most seats can have a greater say on a committee tasked with electing Hong Kong’s next leader, known as chief executive.

Establishment candidates say they represent a silent majority drowned out by protesters who have little tolerance for opposing views.

Muk Ka-chun, a member of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong party, which is favored by older Hong Kongers, said his constituents were fed up with the disruption to everyday life caused by demonstrators.

“The priority now is to have social order back,” said Muk, a 29-year-old high school teacher, while drumming up support in his district of Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. “The older generation own houses and cars, they want society to be stable. Youngsters have heart and want to change society. But rioting is not the right way.”

Fears had abounded in recent weeks that the elections would be postponed or canceled because of unrest in the streets. For the first time, police were mobilized to guard polling stations.

There were few reports of irregularities aside from accusations that pro-establishment candidates had bused in voters lured by gifts of cash and bags of rice.

Tensions erupted in the working-class neighborhood of Tuen Mun, a district contested by the highly divisive politician Junius Ho. The pro-Beijing figure has been admonished for using sexual innuendos to attack female critics, and he’s also lobbed death threats at a rival candidate. He is accused of supporting organized syndicates responsible for the brutal attack on unarmed subway commuters on July 31.

Surrounded on Sunday by bodyguards wearing aviator sunglasses, Ho held a rally that was drowned out by outraged hecklers accusing him of being a gangster and soliciting support from Chinese nationals rather than Hong Kong residents.

“Go back to China,” a man shouted at Ho’s supporters from across a street.

“You can’t even speak Cantonese.”

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.