The number of voters who cast their ballots in Hong Kong’s local elections has reached a record high of at least 2.94 million people.
That’s nearly half of Hong Kong’s entire population and a turnout rate of more than 71 per cent – a record appeared to have been spurred by the political turmoil.
Just 1.47 million people voted in the last district elections four years ago.
The elections on Sunday were seen as a test of support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam following six months of pro-democracy protests.
There were no major disruptions as polling took place, with the first results trickling in after midnight and signalling major gains for the pro-democracy camp.
As of about 4am (7am AEDT), pro-democracy candidates had won at least 207 seats, compared with about 18 seats for the pro-establishment camp, according to local media estimates.
A record 1104 candidates were vying for 452 seats.
Local residents celebrated as pro-Beijing politician Junius Ho Kwan-yiu lost his seat to a pro-democracy challenger.
Jimmy Sham, a candidate for the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised some of the anti-government rallies, won his contest and said the voter numbers, which overtook the 2015 figure, should be a sign to the government that it should listen to their voices.
“This election is special because it is a formal confrontation between pro-establishment and pro-democracy parties after months of unrest caused by the misstep of government,” he told Reuters, standing on crutches weeks after he was beaten by men with hammers during a rally in October.
Casting her ballot, the Beijing-backed Ms Lam pledged that her government would listen “more intensively” to the views of district councils in the Chinese-ruled city.
“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,” Ms Lam said.
The district councils control some spending and decide issues such as recycling and public health. A record 1104 candidates were vying for 452 seats.
If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong’s semi-representative Legislative Council and 117 seats on the 1200-member panel that selects its 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The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
They have at times forced the closure of government, businesses and schools as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in response to petrol bombs and rocks.
The run-up to the election was marked by attacks on candidates, with one stabbed and wounded and another having part of his ear bitten off.
Sunday was also the seventh day of a stand-off at Polytechnic University, with the campus surrounded by police as some protesters hid out on the grounds.
Late on Sunday night paramedics and police were seen escorting a young man in a wheelchair from the campus.
A professor at the university said the man had been found, weak and alone, in one of the rooms on the sprawling site.
Well-known pro-democracy advocate Alexandra “Grandma” Wong, who was detained in the city of Shenzhen over the border from Hong Kong in August, said this was “the day that we are longing for”.
“Because I was detained in Shenzhen, my ballot has become a wasted paper. This breaks my heart. Please help add oil for me and vote. All the Best!!! Be Safe!!!” she wrote according to a message on the Lennon Wall protest movement Facebook page.
It was not clear for how long Wong, who became a fixture at protests carrying a large British Union Jack flag, was detained.
Speaking to supporters outside a polling station shortly before it was announced that he had lost in his challenge to a long-time incumbent, pro-democracy candidate Leung Kwok-Hung, known as “Long Hair”, said he was touched by the high turnout but that the political problems were far from solved.
“After the election is over, there is still a long road ahead… Hong Kong people need to continue to fight hard,” he said.