A defining moment, for better or worse

Editorial | Mary Ma 25 Nov 2019

Anyone turning up to vote in Hong Kong yesterday having spent the past six months on a desert island would have thought nothing had changed from the safe, peaceful and vibrant world city they had left.

The sun was shining, families were out eating dim sum, people were [mostly] smiling and there was a massive sense of optimism in the air.

In reality, most people were yearning for the good old days of not so very long ago before the city was torn apart by scenes of appalling violence and destruction.

Voters turned out in record numbers yesterday for what is a litmus test of support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam ChengYuet-ngor's administration after the SAR was gripped by the anti-government protests for more than five months.

The vote was peaceful. Many people left home early to head straight to the polling stations. Within an hour after the poll opened, nearly 158,000 people had voted - about four times more than during the first hour in 2015.

As voting continued, turnout across the city rose steeply. By 1.30pm, the number of people voting exceeded the total for the whole day in 2015. By 3.30pm, the interim turnout rate more than leveled the rate for the whole day in the 2015 exercise.

Some likened the vote to a referendum. However, the reference was incomplete because there has to be a clear subject to be voted on in a referendum. With Britain, the 2016 referendum was on just about Brexit.

Instead of calling it a referendum, the vote was a test showing how much support there may be for the administration and its political allies. By the time people woke up this morning for work or school, the election results were largely known.

In view of the record turnout, it's only prudent to suggest that the pan-democratic opposition was on course to achieving a breakthrough of some kind because, as has been shown in past elections, the opposition nearly always benefits from high voter turnouts.

Before the vote, all 18 district councils were controlled by pro-Beijing political forces. Has yesterday's vote changed the balance to allow the pan-democrats to control some of the councils that deal with mainly local matters such as transport and wet market facilitates?

Much has been said about what a pan-democratic victory in the district council poll could mean beyond the scope of these local councils.

In less than a year, the Legislative Council election will be held and the district council members will elect among themselves to return one of them to the chamber. If the pro-Beijing side loses its overall majority in district councils, they will hand over this seat to pan-democrats - although they will surely continue to contest the so-called "super seats."

More significantly, 117 district council members sit on the Election Committee that will pick the chief executive in 2022.

If the pan-democrats were able to secure a majority of the district council seats yesterday, this would augment their presence on the Election Committee to about one third to become a meaningful minority.

More than 400,000 of yesterday's voters were newly registered. About one third were thought to favor the establishment and the rest were believed to be pro pan-democrats.

Months of violence by protesters and police have mobilized supporters of both sides to turn out in force.

Lam has rarely said or done the right things in recent months. But I tend to agree with her observation that a peaceful and orderly election would make peace more likely in society so long it's fairly held.

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