HONG KONG — Pro-democracy candidates buoyed by months of street protests in Hong Kong won a stunning victory in local elections on Sunday, as record numbers voted in a vivid expression of the city’s aspirations and its anger with the Chinese government.
It was a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong, and the turnout — seven in 10 eligible voters — suggested that the public continues to back the democracy movement, even as the protests grow increasingly violent. Young Hong Kongers, a major force behind the demonstrations of the past six months, played a leading role in the voting surge.
With three million voters casting ballots, pro-democracy candidates captured 389 of 452 elected seats, up from only 124 and far more than they have ever won. The government’s allies held just 58 seats, a remarkable collapse from 300.
Hong Kong Election Results Mapped
More than half of the 452 seats in Sunday’s local district council elections flipped from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy candidates.
To many democracy advocates, Sunday was a turning point.
“There has been a very deep awakening of the Hong Kong people,” said Alan Leong, chairman of the Civic Party, one of the largest pro-democracy parties.
The elections were for district councils, one of the lowest elected offices in Hong Kong, and they are typically a subdued affair focused on community issues. The job mostly entails pushing for neighborhood needs like bus stops and traffic lights.
But this election took on outsize significance, and was viewed as a referendum on the unrest that has created the city’s worst political crisis in decades. In a semiautonomous part of China where greater democracy is one of the protesters’ biggest demands, it gave residents a rare chance to vote.
The gains at the ballot box are likely to embolden a democracy movement that has struggled with how to balance peaceful and violent protests to achieve its goals.
They are also likely to deepen the challenges for China’s central government, which wants to curb the unrest in Hong Kong. And they might exacerbate Beijing’s fears about giving the city’s residents even greater say in choosing their government.
The district councils are among the most democratic bodies in Hong Kong. Almost all the seats are directly elected, unlike the legislature, where the proportion is just over half. The territory’s chief executive is also not chosen directly by voters, but is instead selected by a committee stacked in favor of Beijing.
The election results will give democracy forces considerably more influence on that committee, which is scheduled to choose a new chief executive in 2022.
The district councils name about a tenth of the group’s 1,200 members, and now all of these will flip from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy seats. Democracy advocates already control about a quarter of the seats, while other previously pro-Beijing sectors of the committee are now starting to lean toward democracy, most notably accountants and real estate lawyers.
Mr. Leong, the Civic Party chairman, called on the Chinese Communist Party to change its policies in Hong Kong.
“Unless the C.C.P. is doing something concrete to address the concerns of the Hong Kong people,” he said, “I think this movement cannot end.”
Regina Ip, a cabinet member and the leader of a pro-Beijing political party, said she was surprised to see so many young voters, many of whom tried to confront her with the protesters’ demands.
“Normally,” she said, “the young people do not come out to vote. But this time, the opposition managed to turn them out.”
Ahead of the election, the city’s leadership was concerned that the vote would be marred by the chaos of recent months. Some of the most violent clashes yet between protesters and the police took place last week, turning two university campuses into battlegrounds.
But the city remained relatively calm on Sunday as voters turned out in droves. Long lines formed at polling centers in the morning, snaking around skyscrapers and past small shops. Riot police officers were deployed near polling stations on Sunday.
David Lee, a retired printer approaching his 90th birthday, was among the earliest voters on Hong Kong Island and said he had come because he wanted democracy.
“This is important,” he said.
Some analysts had predicted that pro-democracy candidates would have difficulty making big gains. Pro-Beijing candidates are much better financed, and the district races have traditionally been won on purely local issues, not big questions like democracy, said Joseph Cheng, a retired professor at City University of Hong Kong.
But voter turnout soared to 71 percent, far surpassing expectations. Typically in district council elections, it is little more than 40 percent. Four years ago, after the 2014 Umbrella Movement increased public interest in politics, turnout climbed to 47 percent. This year, the number of registered voters hit a record.
On Sunday, several prominent pro-Beijing politicians lost their races, among them Michael Tien, a longtime establishment lawmaker. After his defeat, he said the increase in young voters signaled that they were becoming more politically engaged, adding that the government should listen to them.
In the district of Tuen Mun, about a hundred people celebrated with cheers and champagne the defeat of Junius Ho, a controversial lawmaker many protesters accused of supporting mob attacks against them.
The victory on Sunday eclipsed the pro-democracy camp’s last big win in these elections, when they won 198 seats, still short of a majority, following huge protests in 2003. Those demonstrations led the government to scrap a national security bill requested by Beijing that critics said would have endangered civil liberties in Hong Kong.
The government’s allies dominated the elections that followed, though. Beijing began investing heavily in grass-roots mobilization efforts, including busing large numbers of older Hong Kong citizens from retirement homes in mainland China to polling places in Hong Kong.
Instead of just focusing on local issues, many pro-democracy candidates ran on the broad themes of the protest movement, especially anger at police brutality, and the intensity of the demonstrations sometimes spilled into the race. Candidates on both sides were attacked while campaigning.
Mandy Lee, 53, a homemaker who voted at the Kowloon Bay neighborhood, showed up to vote for the pro-Beijing establishment and criticized the protests.
“It’s not that I have no sympathy toward young people, but I strongly believe that their efforts are futile,” she said. “We are a tiny island; it’s only a matter of time before China takes us over and integrates us.”
The outcome of the election could further complicate the position of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive. Critics say that she has failed to engage with the community over the protests and many have demanded she step down.
On Monday, Mrs. Lam said in a statement that the government respected the results of the election. “Many have pointed out that the results reflect the public’s dissatisfaction with the social situation and deep-seated problems,” she said, adding that the government would “listen to the views of the public with an open mind and seriously reflect on them.”
In June, Mrs. Lam set off enormous protests by pushing ahead with a bill that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong residents to the opaque judicial system in mainland China. The issue played to deeper worries about Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong, which has maintained its own political and judicial system since the former British colony was reclaimed by China in 1997.
Mrs. Lam withdrew her proposal after months of protests, but many said she acted too late. The protesters are now demanding additional concessions, including the introduction of universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police conduct.
The election results on Sunday will allow them to argue that the public supports them. About 57 percent of voters cast ballots for pro-democracy candidates, while nearly 40 percent voted for Beijing’s allies. The remaining 3 percent voted for independents, who won five seats.
Many pro-Beijing political parties receive large donations from the Hong Kong subsidiaries of state-owned enterprises in mainland China, which they use to organize picnics and other campaign events. But the results on Sunday showed the limits of these efforts.
Reporting was contributed by K.K. Rebecca Lai in New York and Jin Wu and Katherine Li in Hong Kong.