HONG KONG -- Pro-democracy candidates won a majority of the seats in Hong Kong's district council elections on Sunday, breaking the pro-Beijing camp's grip on local governance in the former British colony.
Some of the highest-profile candidates in the pro-establishment camp, including Legislative Council members and longtime district councilors, lost to challengers from the opposition on high turnout by younger voters -- a demographic tending toward greater sympathy for the pro-democracy movement.
Opposition candidates had claimed more than half of the 452 elected seats in the city's 18 districts as of 6 a.m. Local media counted the opposition's tally in late morning at more than 385. Before the election, the pan-democrats held 118 seats, against 327 for the pro-Beijing camp and seven independents. Full results will be announced on Monday.
A record number of voters made their picks in Hong Kong's first elections since anti-government protests began in earnest this June. Ballots were cast by 2.94 million people, or 71.2% of registered voters. District council elections are held every four years, but this year's polls were closely watched as a referendum on the Hong Kong authorities' response to the demonstrations.
On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement saying the government respects the results. "There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people's dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society," the statement said.
"The [Hong Kong] government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect," she added.
The numbers show that young activists, closely involved in the anti-government protests, are gaining more support from the public despite the recent rise in violence.
Jimmy Sham -- convener at the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized protests by millions against the criminal extradition bill -- and former Umbrella Movement student leaders Tommy Cheung and Lester Shum all successfully beat pro-Beijing candidates.
"The social atmosphere has made this election a de facto referendum," Sham told public broadcaster RTHK. "It's a victory for Hong Kong people." He urged Lam to respond to the protesters' five demands, including genuine universal suffrage to pick the chief executive.
Former HSBC economist Kelvin Lam, who ran after activist Joshua Wong was barred from becoming a candidate, beat pro-Beijing incumbent Judy Chan in Wong's district.
The city's largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, suffered a big loss. More than 80% of its candidates failed to win. Even two of its vice chairmen, Horace Cheung and Holden Chow, went down in defeat.
Controversial politician Junius Ho, accused of triad ties, was unseated by Democratic Party hopeful Cary Lo Chun-yu. The results were "strange," Ho said, as he drew more votes than four years ago.
The Hang Seng Index rose 1.9% in early trading on Monday, as Hong Kong outpaced other regional stock markets.
Having a majority will give pro-democracy parties a bigger say in choosing the city's next chief executive and could help them win more seats in the city's legislature.
District councilors account for 117 seats on the 1,200-member election committee for the city's leader. The pro-democracy camp's majority means that it will claim all 117. Six of the 70 seats in the city's closely divided legislature are also reserved for district councilors.
Ma Ngok, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that unlike typical community votes, this year's elections served as a platform for residents to take a political stand. He said the pro-democracy camp's landslide victory was "beyond imagination," and predicted it would calm the protests for a while. But he said a further escalation of protest violence would "depend on the government's response."
Ma expects the district majority will empower the opposition camp in Hong Kong's broader politics, long dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, and constrain the central government's power in choosing the chief executive. "It will bring more resources to the pro-democracy camp and shake the legitimacy of the major pro-establishment parties," Ma said.
The Global Times, China's state-run tabloid, on Monday morning published an editorial by Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, who argued that the anti-government movement was "using any kind of means to convert its reckless political energy into a tool to influence the elections."
Hu accused "Western forces" of influencing the district council voting. "Western powers and radical groups in Hong Kong want to use these elections as a political weapon and oppose Hong Kong's most pressing task of stopping the violence and bringing order back."
Hu added: "Regardless of how election sentiment is swayed, all elections in Hong Kong are elections within an administrative region of the People's Republic of China, and they cannot attack the principle of 'one country, two systems.'"
Additional reporting by Zach Coleman and Eduardo Baptista.