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Hong Kong protests

Record turnout in first Hong Kong election since protests began

District council vote seen as test of public support for demonstrations

Voters queue to vote at a polling station during district council elections in Hong Kong on Sunday.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Polls closed in Hong Kong's first elections since the anti-government protests began in June, with a record number of voters casting ballots in a test of public support for the demonstrations that have plunged the city into chaos.

Some 2.75 million people, or 66.5% of registered voters, had cast ballots in the district council elections as of 8:30 p.m. local time, according to the election's official website. The figure surpassed that of the previous 2015 local polls as early nine hours before voting ended at 10:30 p.m.

Results are expected to be announced early Monday morning.

There was a heavy police presence outside voting stations as tensions have been heightened by a decision to revive a ban on wearing face masks. But the atmosphere in the city was peaceful throughout the day.

The pro-democracy camp is expected to reap gains as the protest movement has inspired more younger people to get involved in politics. A record 4.13 million people registered to vote this year, compared with 3.12 million in 2015.

At around 10 a.m., dozens of people were joining a long line outside a polling station in Whampoa in Kowloon. Some voters told Nikkei Asian Review that the queue was unusually long this year, and it could take up to 40 minutes to reach the ballot boxes.

A 72-year-old man, who only gave his surname as Sze, chose to have breakfast first as he decided the line was too long and that he'd better return in the afternoon.

"I have never seen such a long line," the retired Whampoa resident said, adding that he had voted in every district council election since turning 18, the legal voting age in Hong Kong. Sze said the recent social movements have prompted more people to exercise their civic rights.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam walks to cast her vote at a polling station during district council local elections in Hong Kong, November 24, 2019.   © Reuters

The holding of the elections had been in some doubt because of the unrest. Hard-liners have been vandalizing transport facilities and Beijing-friendly stores, and clashes between protesters and riot police have been an almost daily occurrence.

The city's government had voiced concerns that road traffic and public transport could be disrupted and staff would not be able to reach polling stations if hard-core demonstrators continued their weekend protests.

There are 479 district councilors in total, of which 452 are elected directly by voters. This is the first year that all seats will be contested, as pro-democracy candidates have rushed to declare their candidacies. The current council is tipped heavily toward pro-establishment members, who hold 327 seats. The pan-democrats number 118, and there are seven independents.

While councilors largely work as advisers to the city's government, they have little actual power to make policy or set budgets in the city's 18 districts.

But Beijing will be paying close attention because of councilors' potentially key role in the selection of the city's top official, the chief executive. While Hong Kong remains semi-autonomous under the "one country, two systems" legal framework, China has considerable influence over the choice of the city's leader.

The councilors account for 117 seats in the 1,200 member election committee for the city's leader. The group, be it pro-establishment or pro-democracy, that wins an overall majority of votes in the elections is able to claim those 117 spots.

Also, six of the 70 seats in the city's closely divided legislature are reserved for district councilors.

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