District council elections in Hong Kong were held in a largely safe and orderly environment on 24 November 2019. The District Council in Hong Kong is generally an elected body of 18 districts of Hong Kong, among them nine in the urban areas and nine in the new territories, District councils are elected on four-year terms, and largely handle local affairs. District council is different from the legislative council and its main function is to advice the government on the matters affecting the well being of the people such as livelihood, transportation, environment, and living conditions.
Sunday’s highly anticipated election is seen as a referendum for greater democratic reform after nearly six months of increasingly violent protest which have largely polarised the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. There was a record turnout of voters which was approximately at a rate of 71.2 percent. This surpassed any other election in city’s history which is a clear indication that people want to transform the system through democratic means as well as the protests movements that is taking place all across the tiny region. This is the first time in political history of the region that pro-democratic parties are able unite themselves for a cause. This was evident in their success to file their candidacy in almost all the seats even in the pro-Beijing strongholds where the seats had gone uncontested in the past few instances. Nearly 3 million people have cast their vote on Sunday’s election without any major disruption in which pro-democracy candidates appear to have made major gains against the pro-establishment law makers. According to the local media reports pro-democracy candidates have won 17 out of 18 district councils which is being seen as a clear support for the anti-establishment movement in Hong Kong. Surprisingly situation has largely remained calm in this weekend in Hong Kong after months of violent protest as protesters didn’t want to give any excuse to the authorities to call off or delay the election process.
There is various analysis and interpretations of the election results from within and externally. Both pro democratic movement supporters and their opponents have put forth their side on arguments across the media platforms. Pro democrats believe that the result is a call for greater democratic reform in the region and a support for the movement while pro-establishment supporters are saying that winning District Council elections will not affect much as it is the lowest level of political authority in Hong Kong which has very little power and minimum budget to make any significant change.
Before Sunday’s historic election most of the District Council seats were controlled by the pro-Chinese or pro-establishment parties which are responsible for the on-going brutal crackdown of the protesters who are demanding for more autonomy for Hong Kong. Interestingly, a number of candidates from the opposition parties fought the election on different local issues as well, but most of the candidates fought their election on five demands which are: “withdraw the extradition bill that kicked off the entire crisis (since achieved), launch an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality, retract any categorization of a protest on June 12 as a “riot”, amnesty for arrested protesters, and introducing universal suffrage for how the Chief Executive and Legislative Council are elected.” All these issues have garnered a strong support from the people of Hong Kong and eventually pro-Chinese parties were routed out in the election which clearly indicated support for the protesters.
After the election result, city’s leader Carrie Lam has declared that her government will respect the mandate of the people and said she would ‘listen humbly’. However, there is a relatively cold response from Beijing on the result. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, has clarified that “Whatever happens, Hong Kong is always a part of China and any attempts to create chaos in Hong Kong or to jeopardise its prosperity and stability will not be successful.” It clearly shows that china is not going to give any space for democratic reform or any type of change in status quo which may jeopardise its existence in Hong Kong. It has warned against any further protest and reiterated its stand that the city will always be ruled by the pro-Beijing rulers.
Chinese stand on the issue is very firm and clear as Beijing stated that the return to normalcy is “the most pressing priority” for China. Beijing maintains that it has the right to prevent any challenge to its core security interests including any threat to its accepted territories. China’s seriousness about the issues can be seen in a recent press conference organized by The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council, which was organized first time since the region was handed over to China. In a long press briefing Chinese officials had reiterated their strong support for the chief executive Carry Lam for her relentless effort to bring back the normalcy in the region and also warned the protesters not to resort in any type of violence act. Most of the political elites in Hong Kong have traditionally received a strong support from the Chinese authorities. This sudden and unexpected win for the opposition parties (i.e. pro-democracy supporters) will bring changes in Hong Kong’s politics even if the election results have minor impact.
However, it is quite early to expect any big changes in Hong Kong politics as District Council is the lowest level of political authority which has very limited power and small budget for local affairs. However, it doesn’t mean that the council has no power at all to bring any changes as it plays a significant role in selecting the chief executive and some legislatures. It is important to mention here that the District Councils are the only authority in Hong Kong in which members are elected through full universal suffrage. The chief executive of Hong Kong is elected for a five-year term through a complex process of indirect Electoral College system, which allows China to have a greater say on choosing the rulers in the region. The number of seats of Electoral College in Hong Kong is 1,200 among them 117 seats are controlled by the party whichever gets the majority in the district councils. The system of “winner takes all” process has given Chinese authorities a strong position as most of these council seats were under the pro-Chinese supporters. Even after winning the seats in 17 out of 18 District Councils, pro-democratic parties are not in a position to make changes in the existing make-up of the Electoral College but it may give them leverage in the workings of the government.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is an Assistant Prof. Department of Political Science, School of Liberal Arts, Galgotias University G. Noida, Uttar Pradesh.