High turnout for Hong Kong election seen as referendum on protests

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More than a million voters thronged polling stations across Hong Kong on Sunday in district elections viewed as a key barometer of support for city leader Carrie Lam, besieged by nearly six months of often violent pro-democracy protests.

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The turnout in the first four hours matched a figure only reached at 6.30 p.m. in the last election four years ago, government data showed, as concern grew in the city of 7.4 million that polling could be halted if violence erupts.

Reuters witnesses said there was only a small police presence as voting began, in contrast to reports that riot police planned to guard all polling stations and almost the entire force of 31,000 would be on duty.

"Some people are afraid the elections will be stopped by unpredictable reasons — maybe some protests," said Kevin Lai, a 45-year-old IT worker, adding that he had come to vote early in a bid to escape any disruptions later.

A record 1,104 candidates are vying for 452 seats and a record 4.1 million people in the Chinese-ruled city have enrolled to vote for district councillors who control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health.

If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kongs Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects its chief executive.

Beijing-backed Lam cast her ballot in front of television cameras and pledged that her government, widely seen as out of touch with the population, would listen "more intensively" to the views of district councils.

She also expressed hope that a rare lull in violence over the past few days would endure.

“I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for todays election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again, hoping to get out of this dilemma, and let us have a fresh start,” Lam said.

The anti-China protests have at times forced the closure of government, businesses and schools in the citys worst political crisis in decades, as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in response to petrol bombs and bows and arrows.

Restaurant manager Jeremy Chan saw the elections in the Asian financial hub as offering protest opponents a chance to share their opinions without fear.

“They believe they are fighting for democracy, fighting for Hong Kong, but the rioters only listen to what they want to hear,” said the 55-year-old, citing vandalism of businesses seen as pro-Beijing. “Freedom of speech is lost.”

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

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

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