Hong Kong’s protest movement grabbed the world’s attention with million-strong rallies and city-stopping unrest. But it won big on the weekend by staying silent.
The landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in Sunday’s district council elections is a stinging rebuke to the city’s government – and an example of what protesters can achieve given the opportunity.
By avoiding unrest and trusting voters to support them, protesters scored a bigger victory than if they had disrupted the polls. They also demonstrated that far from devolving into anarchy, as some on the government side have claimed, the protest movement can – unlike the police, Beijing or the city’s leaders – control when and where the unrest takes place.
Sunday saw beautiful blue skies, long queues and one of the calmest days in Hong Kong since the protests began in June. Far from the visions of destruction and anger that have dominated coverage recently, this was a city that worked. And judging by the results, it worked in spite of, not because of, its government.
According to public broadcaster RTHK, opposition candidates took nearly 90% of the seats up for grabs. Going into Sunday’s elections, all 18 district councils were controlled by pro-Beijing parties. As counting wrapped up Monday, all but one had flipped to overall pro-democratic control. The only outlier, the Islands council, includes a number of appointed members – even then, pro-democracy candidates took a majority of the elected seats.
In this, the elections were a demonstration of people power in more ways than one. Protesters showed they had the discipline to let people speak, and they were rewarded with a resounding vote of confidence. The question now is whether the government will listen.
District council elections should be boring. Only in a system like Hong Kong’s, where other avenues for democracy have been increasingly stifled, could they gain such outsized importance.
Sunday’s vote was framed as a de facto referendum on the protests by all sides. With turnout high from the moment polls opened – and overtaking the 2015 total by midday – many were predicting a win for pro-democracy candidates, but few expected the utter drubbing they delivered.
From the heart of the city’s financial district, to outlying islands and working-class estates in Kowloon, pro-democracy and anti-government candidates turfed out established pro-Beijing councilors.
Even the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the city’s largest pro-Beijing party and possessor of one of the most effective get-out-the-vote operations, could not withstand the tide of anti-government feeling. Less than 20% of the party’s candidates were victorious — 21 out of 181 – and many leading figures, including vice-chairman Holden Chow, were turfed out of their seats.
Speaking to CNN ahead of the vote, Chow said he expected a defeat but that pro-establishment parties would bounce back. Asked why Hong Kongers should be allowed to vote for local representatives but not the city’s leader, he said “we want democracy which is pragmatic and fits Hong Kong’s situation, and would not ruin our relationship with the central government.”
Beyond just the symbolism of Sunday’s vote, control over a majority of district councils gives pro-democracy members the right to select 117 of the 1,200-member “broadly representative” committee that chooses the city’s leader. This means the opposition will have more of a say in who succeeds embattled current leader, Carrie Lam, in 2022.