FORMER senior Hong Kong government official Carrie Lam was on Sunday elected the city’s next leader by a margin of 412 votes out of the total 1,194-election committee, widely accused of being stacked with Beijing loyalists.
Lam received 777 votes with John Tsang, the popular choice, trailing with only 365. Third candidate Woo Kwok-hing was left lagging behind at only 21, according to local news network Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP).
Supporters of Lam were seen celebrating her victory. One of them told HKFP that he’s happy about the results. “I think she deserves it as most people want her to win,” he said.
Lam will likely prove a controversial victor as she has consistently appeared second in opinion polls behind people’s favourite, John Tsang.
A recent poll from South China Morning Post (SCMP) found that Lam was backed by only 30 percent of the wider population compared to 47 percent for Tsang.
Lam was a firm Beijing-favourite and received significant establishment support and unprecedented lobbying of voters in the run up to election.
Activists denounced Beijing’s “interference” and chanted for universal sufferage as the results were announced.
“The ability of the central govt to manipulate the election are shocking”, lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung told reporters at the polling station. “We have to speak for the people who don’t have votes – we want real universal suffrage!”
“Lies, coercion, whitewash,” read one banner. A big yellow banner calling for full democracy was hung from the Lion Rock peak overlooking the city.
Activist Andrew Shum of the watchdog Civil Rights Observer was watching the news at a restaurant. He wrote on social media: “People without a vote were booing at the results.”
Most of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million voters have no say in the choice of leader in the former British colony, with ballots being cast only by an elite election committee comprised of millionaires and billionaires, including all 70 members of the city’s legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors.
Lam’s victory comes at a time when tensions with Beijing have been on the rise and the people of Hong Kong are increasingly politically divided.
“Hong Kong society’s split has not been fixed,” Johnny Lau, a veteran China watcher, told HKFP. “Unless she can create good conditions soon, to reach out to pan-democrats and young people,” he added.
Lau also questioned the integrity of the election and pondered the motives behind Lam’s victory.
“Did they really support her platform? Or did they vote for her because of Beijing? This showed how ridiculous this election is,” he said.
In her acceptance speech, Lam told reporters, “I don’t have any self interest. There shouldn’t be conflict between society’s benefit and mine.”
When asked about her willingness to restart democratic reform, she responded, “I do want democracy in Hong Kong, but why don’t we focus on easier subjects?”
This will likely come as little solace to the activists who have tirelessly fought for universal suffrage.
Runner-up, Tsang, warned in his concession speech of tough times ahead.
“I believe the next five years will not be easy. I have told Carrie that, and she understands. Only if she can get the support of the whole of society can she achieve things. I hope the public will support her,” he said, as reported by HKFP.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing has gradually increased control over it even though China had promised wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy not allowed on the mainland under the formula of “one country, two systems”, along with an undated promise of universal suffrage.
Many, including opposition democrats, fear Lam will continue the tough policies of staunchly pro-Beijing incumbent Leung Chun-ying, a controversial figure who ordered the firing of tear gas on pro-democracy protesters in 2014 and who was not seen to be defending Hong Kong’s autonomy and core values.
“She doesn’t have a strong foundation, nor will she have a honeymoon after she’s elected,” said political scientist Ivan Choy.
“But whether she will further divide society we still have to wait and see what she does, whether she will continue the approach of Leung.”
Additional reporting by Reuters