Ballots are being displayed for counting at a polling station. Nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens cast their ballots on Sunday’s district council elections in the referendum race between the pro-democracy camp and pro-Beijing camp after more than five months of turmoil in the city.
May James | SOPA Images, LightRocket | Getty Images
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy candidates won big in local elections on Sunday, but there will be no easy solutions to the issues hanging over the territory as protesters stand up to China‘s growing influence, analysts told CNBC on Monday.
“It’s very clear that people are not happy with the government, so they try to support the pro-democracy camp in this election,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
The polls come after six months of anti-government, pro-democracy protests that have turned increasingly violent, and as Hong Kong struggles to overcome its most serious political crisis in decades. The local elections have been widely viewed as a barometer of public sentiment.
“The root cause of Hong Kong’s problem is still there, particularly (as) Beijing is very assertive about Hong Kong’s situation,” Wu told CNBC’s “Capital Connection.”
“Also, lots of young people are very much politically active,” he added. “They want (the) government to make a change, but unfortunately over the past few months, (the) government still adopt the previous line so it’s hard to say it will have a dramatic change in the near future.”
Hong Kong pro-democracy parties took 390 out of 452 district council seats — winning nearly 90% of the seats, according to Reuters which cited local broadcaster RTHK on Monday. Democratic candidates secured just 100 seats at the previous elections four years ago.
According to the office of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, about 2.94 million registered electors cast their votes in the district council election on Sunday — a record turnout of about 71.2%. That’s almost double the number in the previous election four years ago, according to Reuters.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has been operating under the “one country, two systems” principle since its return to Chinese rule in 1997. That framework gives the international financial hub self-governing power and various freedoms, including limited election rights. Hong Kong citizens also enjoy a higher degree of autonomy compared to citizens of mainland China.
In a statement on Monday, Lam said her government “respects the election results” and “will listen” to the public’s opinions.
Wu said he expected Lam to continue to “listen to Beijing” and adopt a “so-called hardline” approach to the issues in Hong Kong. “It’s very difficult to see that she will try to change her stance,” said Wu, citing Lam’s track record.
Why district council seats matter
District councils are lower level government bodies looking after local matters — including issues pertaining to bus routes and recreation facilities. They have a four-year term, and one council is in charge of each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.
Under the current electoral system, only 94% of the district council seats and half of the seats at the legislative council are elected by general public voters. The legislative council is the Hong Kong’s parliament, commonly referred to as Legco.
The chief executive of the territory, currently Lam, can only be nominated and elected by a committee that consists of 1,200 members, made up mostly of pro-Beijing elites.
Emptying a ballot box to count votes on Sunday in Hong Kong.
Billy H.C. Kwok | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Opposition members have been pushing for the Chinese government to honor a full democracy that they say was promised by Beijing in the Basic Law, which gives general public voters the rights to elect their leader. This is also one of the five demands that the anti-government protesters are advocating, and a core reason that sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement, another wave of massive pro-democracy protests.
Without the change in political structure, the only way for the public to have a say about their leader is through the district councilors — who make up around 10% of the election committee — and Legco lawmakers, who account for about 6%.
Will China intervene?
Simon Shen, adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong University said the root cause of the protests is due to fundamental problems with the “one country, two systems” framework. He said many people in Hong Kong question if the territory is exercising the autonomy that Beijing promised over 20 years ago.
“When Beijing tries to intervene in a more systematic manner, people are just responding and resisting,” so there will be no easy solution unless the fundamental issues are resolved, Shen told CNBC.
Shen said while he doesn’t expect Beijing to back down explicitly. But in the wake of the resounding pro-democratic win in the local elections, he thinks the government could introduce measures addressing demands for universal suffrage and issues surrounding national security.
Wu also doesn’t believe there will be a military crackdown in Hong Kong, in part due to Hong Kong’s special status and trading relationships with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
“Hong Kong is still very much valuable for Beijing. Beijing will not send the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to Hong Kong in the near future,” said Wu.
But the stalemate will remain for the near future, said Wu.
— CNBC’s Vivian Kam contributed to this report.