Record turnout for local elections in Hong Kong amid crisis

Vote considered test of sentiment about Beijing's rule

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Record numbers of Hong Kong residents turned out to vote on Sunday in district elections regarded as a barometer of support for city Chief Executive Carrie Lam, protests and Beijing authorities.

Government data has revealed that more than 2.6 million people cast their vote by 7.30pm local time, with polling stations set to close at 10:30pm.

The territory, beleaguered by nearly six months of often violent pro-democracy protests, was electing 452 district councillors.

This surpasses the more than 1.4 million people who voted in district elections four years ago.

A record 4.1 million people are registered to vote, with turnout reaching nearly 50 per cent. The first results should start to come in before midnight.

A record 1,104 candidates are vying for 452 district council seats. The body has some control over spending and deciding on issues such as recycling, public health, community activities, and mostly advises the chief executive.

The elections are the first chance to express sentiment since the protests started.

Ms Lam, who is backed by Beijing, cast her ballot and pledged that her government, which is regarded as being detached from the city's people, would listen "more intensively" to the views of councils.

She said she hoped that the relative calm of the past few days would hold.

"I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today's election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again, and let us have a fresh start," Ms Lam said.

I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today's election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again

Over the past four days, even with the Polytechnic University stand-off entering its seventh day, the city has had a respite from violent protests after one of the fiercest weeks of clashes between protesters and police.

Police officers were sent to more than 600 polling stations.

The protests have at times forced government, businesses and schools to close in the city's worst political crisis in decades.

Police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in response to petrol bombs, bricks and recently bows and arrows.

Attacks on election candidates in recent weeks have thrust the lowest tier of government in China's special administered region into the world spotlight as the Hong Kong government and Beijing struggle to quieten angry demands for universal suffrage.

One of the candidates to be attacked, in October by men wielding hammers, is Jimmy Sham, a candidate for the Civil Human Rights Front that organised some of the mass anti-government rallies of recent months.

I hope our Hong Kong citizens can vote for the future of Hong Kong

"We can see Hongkongers are longing for a chance to express their stand," Mr Sham said.

"We don’t know yet if the democrats can win a majority but I hope our Hong Kong citizens can vote for the future of Hong Kong."

The vote comes at a time of unprecedented political polarisation in the city as the protests turn more violent.

While most support the protesters' goals of meaningful elections and an independent inquiry into police abuse, they are increasingly frustrated with tactics including vandalising transport networks, seizing universities and using medieval-style weapons.

Some pro-establishment supporters are very angry because they cannot go to work, as roads are blocked by protesters. They say businesses considered to be pro-Beijing are being vandalised.

If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control in district elections, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong's Legislative Council and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that chooses the chief executive.

The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, but quickly evolved into calls for full democracy.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.