A poll, an opening
When Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam described the local body elections in the city as unusually political, she was not far off the mark. Pro-democracy forces have swept the polls in Hong Kong, winning 90 per cent of the seats and with an over 70 per cent turnout — up from 47 per cent in 2015. While the local body has limited municipal powers and selection to it usually passes without comment, Sunday’s verdict was different. For one, it is a clear signal that the people of Hong Kong have not viewed favourably the manner in which the Chinese government has handled the protests. Second, it threatens to deepen the wedge between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
The protests were sparked six months ago in response to a proposed law that would allow the extradition of people from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland. The law was seen as a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle that is the bedrock of the political-constitutional relationship between China and Hong Kong. While the law was eventually withdrawn, the protests have gone on and have turned into a demand for wider reforms and full democracy. Sunday’s result also punctures Lam’s claim that the protesters were just a disruptive and vocal minority, and that a “silent majority” did not support the pro-democracy movement.
The local body elections were in a sense a referendum for what has gone in the last six months. But, unlike in a fully-functioning democracy, an election result need not signal a shift in power in China — or Hong Kong. Both the Chinese government and the protesters have thus far taken maximalist positions. In the best case scenario, these elections could provide an opening, as well as local leaders, with legitimacy, to negotiate greater freedoms as well as a return to normalcy in Hong Kong.