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Nikkei Editorial

Hong Kong elections show public thirst for political change

Government must heed message sent by opposition's landslide

Victorious pro-democracy district council candidate Kelvin Lam, right, shakes hands with Erica Yuen, who unsuccessfully sought the same seat in two previous elections.   © Kyodo

The historic victory by pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong's district council elections on Nov. 24 should be taken by the territory's government as a sign that the political status quo cannot stand.

The vote was essentially a referendum on the protests that have rocked the city since June. The democratic camp won more than 80% of the 452 elected seats. At 71.2%, turnout was the highest in any election in the territory since its 1997 handover from the U.K.

District councils have little power, being largely limited to advising the government on policies affecting local residents. And the election itself was not without problems, such as pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong being barred from running.

Yet these elections are the clearest expression of the will of Hong Kong's people. And with their victory, the pan-democrats secured about 10% of seats on the committee that will choose the territory's next leader in 2022.

The first protests this summer brought out 1 million to 2 million people against a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The government in October invoked emergency powers to impose a ban on the face masks widely used by protesters, but this did nothing to halt clashes between police and demonstrators that have led to injuries and deaths.

It was significant that so many people registered their disapproval of the government even after dealing with the inconveniences caused by the protesters, such as disruptions to subway service. Students and other activists were not alone in fearing the hollowing out of the "one country, two systems" framework that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.

Now, it is the Hong Kong government's turn to consider how to break the chain of distrust.

Pro-democracy activists have demanded direct elections of Hong Kong's leader and an independent investigation into police brutality against protesters. The election demand is particularly important, as Beijing had already promised universal suffrage.

Direct election of the chief executive -- referred to as "true universal suffrage" -- was a central demand of the Umbrella Movement five years ago. Those protests followed a widely opposed decision by Beijing that essentially allowed only pro-mainland candidates to run for the post. Efforts at political reform at that time ultimately stalled out.

Fair and democratic elections are the best way to reconcile differing political interests. But the shortcomings of Hong Kong's system have rendered marching in the streets the primary means for people to express their political views. Such demonstrations have from time to time boiled over into violence.

Beijing should give the Hong Kong government a degree of discretion in restoring political stability under the "one country, two systems" framework. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has a responsibility to make the mainland leadership understand that the turmoil will continue if the will of the people is ignored again. Political reform of some kind is urgently needed to carve out a future for Hong Kong.

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