Breakingviews - Hong Kong voters offer glimmer for recovery

Supporters of local candidate Kelvin Lam celebrate, after it was announced he won the local council elections in his district, at a polling station in the South Horizons West district in Hong Kong, China November 25, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - 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.


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