HONG KONG — After months of protest, marked by cries for reform and clashes with police, the people of Hong Kong sought to make their voices heard at the ballot box Sunday.
Long lines of voters braved hot weather as residents turned out in droves for district elections widely seen as a test of public opinion amid the increasingly violent protests that have consumed the semi-autonomous Chinese territory for six months.
NBC News witnessed long lines outside at least ten polling stations around Hong Kong as the voting turnout reached over 66 percent by 8:30 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. ET) with two hours of voting still to go, data from Hong Kong’s electoral office showed.
The nearly 2.8 million who voted so far had already surpassed the numbers from the 2015 elections.
In contrast to recent turmoil, police kept their distance and online group chats used by the demonstrators encouraged people to vote rather than engage in protest.
People took shade under umbrellas and waited patiently for their turn to vote in elections that have become symbolic for the territory reeling from unrest and violence.
“This is a de facto referendum for Hong Kong people,” Frank Liu, 32, told NBC News outside a polling station in the city’s northwest. “People have taken to the streets and protested against the administration, but the government refuses to listen to our opinion.”
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“Our society has been deeply divided for six months,” said another voter, Kate Ng, 28. “I’m pregnant so it’s not possible for me to go to rallies to support the democratic movement. This vote means a lot.”
A total of 1,090 candidates are vying for 452 seats and 4.1 million people out of a population of 7.4 million have enrolled to vote for district councilors.
A strong showing by the opposition would indicate that the public still supports the anti-government movement, even as the protests have become increasingly violent.
But a vote for Beijing-backed candidates could suggest that Hong Kongers are fed up with the unrest, nearly daily disruptions and the city’s bruised reputation as a tourism and finance hub.
The vote also comes in the wake of a dramatic turn last week, when police laid siege to a university campus, trapping hundreds of protesters inside.
For months protesters have been demanding reform in light of a controversial extradition bill — since shelved — which became a lightning rod for concerns of Beijing’s creeping influence over the former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The protesters have also been urging the territory’s embattled leader Carrie Lam to step down, calling for an independent inquiry into police actions, amnesty for those charged and greater voting rights.
During the months of turmoil, police and protesters have been engaging in increasingly violent clashes — with officers regularly using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to control crowds wielding Molotov cocktails, bricks and even occasional bows and arrows.
“People have nearly used all their ways to express their views,” said Nelson Lee, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in Hong Kong government and politics.
“The only possible remaining method is through this local council election. This is a big day for the protesters,” he said, adding that the Hong Kong government will have to accept the public opinion reflected in the election results.
Lam, who is backed by Beijing, cast her ballot in front of television cameras Sunday and pledged that her government would listen “more intensively” to the views and opinions of district councils on behalf of the local population.
Beijing has so far steered clear of intervening in the protests, saying it has confidence in Lam and her government to resolve the conflict.
However, as tensions escalate the ongoing protests are posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Polling stations in Hong Kong will remain open until 10:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET).
Initial results are expected from some districts before midnight. They are sure to be eagerly awaited in both Hong Kong and Beijing.
Jasmine Leung and Ed Flanagan reported from Hong Kong. Yuliya Talmazan from London.