HONG KONG, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Hong Kongers came out to the polls in record-breaking numbers on Sunday, voting in municipal elections that are widely viewed as a referendum on the pro-democracy movement roiling the city across almost six months of protests.
As of 6:30 p.m. local time, with polls still open for four more hours, nearly 2.5 million voters, more than 60 percent of those registered, had cast their ballots in Hong Kong's District Council elections, shattering previous turnout figures.
Sunday's voter participation was the largest in Hong Kong history, easily surpassing 2015's figure of 47 percent, the previous high-water mark in the usually sleepy local contests, and even topping voting in 2016 for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's law-making body.
Excitement for the elections was evident from very early morning as long lines began forming ahead of the 7:30 a.m. opening time at many polling locations around the city.
In the district of South Horizons, leading pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong cast his ballot in a race that he had planned to enter himself but was disqualified from by election officials in a move widely viewed as political.
He instead supported substitute candidate Kevin Lam against the incumbent South Horizon district councilor Judy Chan of the pro-Beijing New People's Party.
Lam is the deeply unpopular leader of Hong Kong, whose handling of the semi-autonomous region's rising unrest and unresponsiveness to the demands of protesters has made her a central target of vitriol from the pro-democracy movement.
As a long line ran down the sidewalk and snaked around a corner in South Horizons, voters waiting to cast their ballot said they hadn't ever witnessed such a turnout.
"I've never seen an election like this," said Daisy Wong, 24. "It's definitely related to the ongoing democracy movement in Hong Kong. South Horizons used to be a very pro-government district but we are trying to change that, especially after Joshua Wong was disqualified. Everyone wants to make a difference."
Scenes of massive early crowds were repeated at polling stations all over Hong Kong, partly driven by social media and messaging on communications channels used by the protest movement. Many activists urged voters to show up as early as possible for fear that the government would find a reason to shut down the elections over security concerns.
Carrie Lam, who cast her ballot in the upscale Mid-Levels district of Hong Kong, encouraged citizens to vote and said that the Hong Kong government would "listen more attentively to the views and opinions expressed by the District Council members on behalf of the local population."
Lam told reporters that organizing this year's election was an "extremely challenging situation," but expressed hope that there would be a "relatively peaceful and calm environment to conduct these elections successfully."
While reports ahead of election day suggested that riot police would be out in force to guard polling places after the extreme violence of the past week's clashes on Hong Kong Polytechnic University, they were a minor presence at most voting locations and very little unrest had been reported by early evening.
Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu, who was the victim of an assault earlier this month when a knife wielding attacker bit off part of his left ear, was out campaigning for re-election in his district of Tai Koo on Sunday despite still recovering from surgery.
Chiu, a member of the Democratic Party, said he was concerned about violence but was heartened to see such a large turnout and hoped the election would send a loud and clear message to the world.
"This election is a civilized and legitimate way to provide a chance for Hong Kong people to express our anger and our grievance to our government," he said. "I do hope that after the elections, the pro-democracy camp will have a clear result that sends a message to the Hong Kong government, the Beijing government and the international community that Hong Kong people will stand together to fight for our democracy."
Chiu said he was encouraged by the sight of so many younger voters, a strongly pro-democratic demographic, but expressed caution that pro-Beijing candidates still had deep resources and ground-level organizations to turn out supporters. Final results are expected by early Monday.
A pro-establishment majority has traditionally dominated the District Council, which has for the most part remained apolitical and is limited in scope to community issues such as roads, trash collection and building maintenance.
However, the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong has brought a high-voltage political current to many of the campaigns for the 452 seats on the council.
Isaac Ho, a first-time candidate in the Kowloon district of Tsim Sha Tsui, located near the Polytechnic University campus, placed his pro-democracy movement affiliation front and center in his messaging.
Ho and his supporters were canvassing and handing out flyers on Sunday that carried key slogans of the protest movement, such as "Five Demands, Not One Less" and even included an image of a popular cartoon pig widely shared on the movement's social media platforms.
Ho said that he had already planned to run for the District Council seat before the protests, sparked by a controversial extradition bill, began in June. But as the movement quickly grew, he and many fellow candidates saw the local elections -- the only ones in Hong Kong that offer full direct representation to citizens -- as a powerful vehicle of political expression.
"It used to be seen as negative to bring political affiliation into the District Council but that has changed," Ho said. "The meaning of this election is not about local politics anymore. This is a chance to represent our opinion and show how many people support the democracy movement and how many people are pro-establishment. This is a social movement, and the election is another means to express it."
At a nearby polling station in Tsim Sha Tsui, voter Estelle Chan said that while she had always dutifully cast her ballot in past elections, this year held a much greater significance and that friends across social media and messaging apps had been urging each other to come out and vote.
"We want to be involved in the process, especially with everything that has happened," she said. "This is our city. We want to do our part."