Sunday’s ballot was remarkable in every sense. It shows that the people do not only embrace democracy more than ever, but also are capable of putting rationality ahead of strife. Even though some queued for more than an hour to vote, all went smoothly. Photo: Reuters
by SCMP Editorial
by SCMP Editorial

People have spoken at polls and Carrie Lam must now respond in order to end crisis

  • Landslide victory for pan-democratic parties in district council elections will have a sweeping impact on city gripped by social unrest, and sends a message to both the chief executive and Beijing

Hongkongers have made history. They put aside months of social unrest to say what they want loud and clear through the ballot box.

The district council elections were not only concluded in an extraordinarily peaceful and orderly way, but they also shocked the establishment and warrant serious ­soul-searching.

From the political landscape and balance of power to effective governance and Beijing’s policy on city affairs, they will have a sweeping impact in the short and long term.

They also offer another window of opportunity for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to respond to people’s aspirations, which hopefully will help defuse the crisis that has gripped the city for nearly six months.

Sunday’s ballot was remarkable in every sense. Just weeks before polling, there were still fears it could be postponed or cancelled because of escalating chaos and violence.

Despite the stand-off at Polytechnic University, all sides worked hard to ensure the vote could go ahead. It shows that the people do not only embrace democracy more than ever, but also are capable of putting rationality ahead of strife.

Even though some queued for more than an hour to vote, all went smoothly and credit must go to the Electoral Affairs Commission.

However, manpower was stretched by the historic turnout of 2.94 million voters, an impressive 71.2 per cent, and claims that some used the identity documents of others must be investigated.

Hong Kong elections: pro-democracy camp wins 17 out of 18 districts

Unlike in June, when the size of two mass protests were subject to dispute, the ballot is the clearest barometer of the public mood.

The record turnout is widely seen as the result of the rival camps gearing up voters in a de facto referendum over the fallout of the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

Pan-democrats highlighted discontent at the government’s inadequate response to protesters’ demands and police enforcement actions, while the pro-Beijing camp hoped the protest violence would encourage the silent majority to speak out.

While the pan-democrats now enjoy greater support, the votes they gained do not necessarily endorse protest violence. The considerable support for the pro-Beijing camp, as reflected in its 40 per cent vote share, is indicative of people’s desire to restore law and order.

Changing political landscape

That the extradition bill fiasco benefited the opposition is to be expected, but what surprises is the extent of its victory. For the first time, pro-democracy camp scooped 392 of the 452 elected seats, seizing control in 17 of the 18 district councils.

The pro-Beijing camp suffered its worst defeat, with its flagship Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong winning just 21 seats.

The pan-democrats have not just gained control of local affairs and funding to develop a stronger district power base, they also command sufficient support to win the district council seat in the legislature, as well as the 117 seats in the election committee that chooses the chief executive. The implications are far-reaching.

People queue up for the district council election at polling stations in Lek Yuen Estate on Sunday. Photo: Winson Wong

Concern has been raised that district councils may become more politicised. From the allocation of resources to working with the administration, there will need to be room for adjustment. The opposition has to show councils will not become dysfunctional under its leadership.

Its landslide victory is clearly down to a protest vote rather than solid support for its members’ work in the districts, where some first-time winners have no track record. The camp needs to rise to the challenges ahead or there may be a reversal of fortunes, as seen in the comeback of the pro-Beijing camp in the 2007 elections following a crushing defeat in 2003.

Opportunity for reconciliation

Critics question whether the results will speed up Lam’s departure as elsewhere the government would have been replaced. The outcome is ultimately her responsibility but, regrettably, voters can only punish government allies, not the government itself.

As a result, the Lam administration may become even more of a lame duck, and her allies will be more cautious in the run-up to the Legislative Council elections next September. Unpopular or controversial policies will become more difficult to sell.

Beijing, which requires patriots to form most of the city establishment, is understandably worried by the outcome. It needs to fully appreciate the underlying issues and also adjust its policies as appropriate.

People queue up to cast their vote for the district council election in Sha Tin on Sunday. Photo: EPA-EFE

The vote should not be seen as the public seeking to break away from China, but it does reflect worries and dissatisfaction with the way “one country, two systems” is implemented.

It is up to Beijing to make use of the carrots and sticks it has in shaping the city’s development. But an approach that reflects majority wishes will go a long way in winning support and fostering stability and prosperity.

Once again, the people have spoken. The majority is still critical of the way the government has been handling the political crisis and wants its demands addressed, including the establishment of an independent inquiry and reforms for greater democracy.

Lam has repeatedly failed to defuse the crisis, and this has resulted in further social unrest. She must seize the opportunity for reconciliation and respond proactively. The last thing people want is for the elections to fail to foster positive changes and see violence return.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: People have spoken at polls and Lam must now respond in order to end crisis