|25 November, 2019

Hong Kong voters offer glimmer for recovery

Extending the calm would help the city start rebuilding from recession

A woman reacts during the counting of the votes of the Hong Kong council elections, in a polling station in Hong Kong, China November 25, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose.

A woman reacts during the counting of the votes of the Hong Kong council elections, in a polling station in Hong Kong, China November 25, 2019. Image used for illustrative purpose.

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

HONG KONG - A small ray of hope has emanated from Hong Kong’s ballot boxes. Nearly 3 million voters, or 71% of those eligible, turned out to hand pro-democracy groups a big victory in the Chinese special administrative region. The outcome puts pressure on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to make some concessions. Even after six months of bumbling, she now has a chance to take steps that could help keep the calm and reverse an economic slump.

In most ways, the landslide is merely symbolic. District councils in Hong Kong typically focus on mundane neighborhood affairs ranging from noise pollution to transportation. Yet after six months of anti-government demonstrations, which have included violent standoffs between police and protesters nearly every week, Sunday's elections were a test of public support for the movement. With votes still being tallied on Monday morning, pro-democracy candidates were on track to rout Beijing-friendly incumbents and sweep more than half the 452 seats up for grabs.

It is a strong rebuke against Lam, whose administration's tin-eared response have fed widespread outrage. Her only concession, the formal withdrawal of her proposed extradition bill which triggered the unrest, came too late and only after demands from protesters broadened to include an independent investigation of the police force and extending the vote to include higher offices too.

Lam has been given a narrow window in which to act. Sunday's elections were largely free of disruption, bringing a rare and welcome respite from petrol bombs and tear gas. Announcing a formal inquiry now into the conduct of law enforcement, for example, could appease some more moderate supporters of the movement.

Moreover, extending the calm would help the city start rebuilding from recession. Retail sales in September plunged by almost a fifth, the eighth consecutive month of decline from a year earlier. That same month, the number of tourists cratered by more than a third. Major events, from music festival Clockenflap to tech bash Rise, have been called off by organisers. Hong Kongers have spoken; it’s a question of whether Lam is ready to capitalise on the moment and listen.

CONTEXT NEWS

- Hong Kong's pro-democracy candidates for the first time won more than half the 452 district council seats, in elections held on Nov. 24, according to media estimates as of early morning Nov. 25. Pro-Beijing parties gained 52 seats.

- Almost 3 million people cast ballots, a record turnout of more than 71% of registered voters. Hong Kong's district councils control some spending and decide a range of livelihood issues such as transport. - The city is in its sixth month of anti-government protests, spurred by a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial. The legislation was formally withdrawn in October.

 (Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Sharon Lam) ((robyn.mak@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: robyn.mak.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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