World

Hong Kong voters back pro-democracy protesters. Bougainville referendum on independence. Unrest in Iran over steeper fuel prices. Michael Bloomberg enters race to be Democratic presidential candidate. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Pro-democracy landslide in Hong Kong local elections

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam at a press conference on Tuesday.
Credit: AP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Hong Kong: Typically, elections for Hong Kong’s 452 district councillors, who oversee bus routes, libraries and garbage collection, attract little attention. But last weekend’s ballot marked the first opportunity to gauge the public mood following months of pro-democracy protests that have turned increasingly violent. Significantly, Hong Kong’s local elections are the only ones in which all representatives are decided by direct vote.

The results, announced last Sunday night, were resounding and were reported around the world, except in China. Pro-democracy candidates won 392 seats, up from about 120, and pro-Beijing candidates won 60 seats. Turnout was 71 per cent, the highest in history, as 2.9 million people voted, up from 1.5 million in 2015.

The election winners included Jimmy Sham, a 32-year-old campaigner for LGBTQIA+ rights who was attacked on the street last month, apparently by government supporters. Another winner, Jordan Pang, a 21-year-old university student, defeated Horace Cheung, a veteran pro-Beijing politician.

On Tuesday, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, acknowledged that the vote showed government “deficiencies” but refused to make concessions to the protesters. She has offered to hold a dialogue with pro-democracy leaders but has rejected their demands for universal suffrage and an inquiry into the conduct of the police.

The elections humiliated Beijing but have raised questions about the long-term future of Hong Kong. China is due to take complete control of the city in 2047 and has signalled it will resist any moves towards greater democracy or independence.

Asked about the results, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, told reporters in Beijing: “As Hong Kong is part of China, its affairs are purely domestic affairs.”

Before the elections, commentators in China had predicted the vote would demonstrate a rejection of the protests. On Monday, most Chinese-language media outlets did not report the results. Some later blamed the outcome on fraud or foreign interference.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: In Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea, voting is under way in a referendum on whether to break away and form a new nation. The ballot is part of a peace process that ended a brutal civil war in the province from 1988 to 1998 that left as many as 20,000 people dead.

The two-week voting period ends next Saturday and is likely to result in a strong show of support for independence. Officials said 206,731 people registered to vote, from a population of about 300,000.

The voting and the lead-up to the referendum have been peaceful. But the referendum will not resolve the province’s status. According to a peace deal signed in 2001, the result is not binding and will be followed by talks between the Papua New Guinea and Bougainville governments. Port Moresby would prefer to grant Bougainville greater autonomy and may seek to resist, or delay, any moves towards independence.

The other looming challenge is the future of the province’s controversial Panguna mine, which has one of the world’s biggest copper deposits. It was tensions over the mine – including anger over the environmental damage and the distribution of benefits – that sparked the civil war. The mine has been closed since 1989. Various entities and business figures, including several Australians, have been eyeing its potential reopening. Shares in the former operator, Bougainville Copper Limited, have tripled in price in recent weeks in anticipation of the referendum result.

The mine’s open pit remains surrounded by decaying equipment. Building a consensus about Panguna’s future will not be easy and could take years.

The referendum’s result is due to be announced by December 20.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Iran: Earlier this month, Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, announced it was raising petrol prices by 50 per cent and effectively restricting motorists to buying 60 litres a month – as every additional litre would incur an even higher price. This prompted violent demonstrations across the country in which motorists abandoned their vehicles on roads and protesters attacked banks and shops. In response, Iranian authorities launched a brutal crackdown, though little is known about it because the government shut down the internet.

As the blackout was eased this week, videos emerged showing security forces shooting at unarmed protesters and beating a man before dragging him away. On Monday, Amnesty International said at least 143 people had been killed but the toll may be “significantly higher”.

The unrest reflects widespread anger over the country’s collapsing economy. Inflation is more than 40 per cent, unemployment is more than 12 per cent and the currency is at record lows. This downturn follows Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear agreement and to adopt a “maximum pressure” campaign, including heavy sanctions, to pressure Tehran to renegotiate the deal. Iran’s oil exports reached 2.5 million barrels a day under the agreement and have now dropped to fewer than 400,000 barrels.

But Tehran has not budged. Instead, Iran has expanded uranium production and blamed foreign forces for fomenting the recent unrest.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is pressing ahead with the fuel hikes, which he says will be used to provide welfare for the poor. Petrol in Iran is heavily subsidised and still costs less than almost anywhere in the world. But the new price of 15,000 Iranian rials a litre – about 53 cents – is a heavy burden in a nation whose economy is expected to contract this year by 9.5 per cent.

SPOTLIGHT: Bloomberg runs for president

Within hours of Michael Bloomberg announcing he would run in the United States presidential race, journalists at his news service were issued a new edict: do not investigate him, or any of the other Democratic contenders. The staff memo also revealed that several Bloomberg opinion writers would join “Mike’s” campaign.

This is not the first time a billionaire has stood for president, but none has been as wealthy – Bloomberg is the world’s 11th-richest person – or owned a media empire. Bloomberg LP, his company, employs 19,000 people, while the candidate himself has previously promised he would, if he entered the contest, sell his media and financial data business or put it in a blind trust. He has admitted this “would take a long time”.

The first confirmation that Bloomberg, a former Republican mayor of New York, was entering the race was his purchase of about $US34 million worth of advertisements, the largest single amount spent on advertising in American political history. The 77-year-old is presenting himself as a centrist candidate who can win back Trump supporters and can prevent the nomination of a more left-wing candidate such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. He is self-funding his campaign and plans to focus on combating climate change and gun violence.

But his campaign faces serious hurdles, particularly the “stop and frisk” policing policy he introduced as mayor. He has apologised for the tactics, which targeted African Americans and Hispanics, but will struggle to win support among these demographics, which are crucial for Democratic contenders.

Still, Bloomberg is likely to reshape the crowded Democratic race. He is relying on an advertising blitz rather than a grassroots support base, but the main effect may be to drain support from leading centrist candidates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg and to improve the prospects of Warren and Sanders.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Pro-democracy landslide in HK poll". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.