HONG KONG (AFP) -- Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp was headed for a thumping victory in district council elections, local media reported on Monday, a vote widely seen as a referendum on the Beijing-backed government's handling of months of violent political unrest.
Counting was still under way following record turnout in Sunday's elections, but results so far indicated that candidates favouring calls for greater democracy were on course to seize a shock majority of the 452 seats contested, media reports said.
District councils -- which handle community-level concerns such as bus routes and garbage collection -- have long been dominated by the pro-Beijing establishment.
The pro-democracy camp hopes weakening that grip would send a message to China and Hong Kong's unpopular leader Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong has endured months of mass rallies and violent clashes pitting police against protesters who are mobilised by fears that Beijing is whittling away at the semi-autonomous territory's freedoms, which are unique for China.
Their demands include direct popular elections and a probe into alleged police brutality against demonstrators.
"The voice of the public is loud and clear... We hope the government can heed the protesters' demands," Roy Kwong, a member of Hong Kong's legislature who won a district council seat for the Democratic Party, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.
Results from 241 races tabulated early Monday by the newspaper showed 201 pro-democracy candidates winning their races as opposed to just 28 pro-Beijing establishment candidates and 12 independents.
Analysts had expected pro-democracy candidates to achieve only minimal gains in the councils.
A record 71 percent of the 4.13 million citizens who registered to vote had cast their ballots, according to Hong Kong's election watchdog, far higher than the then-record 47 percent who voted in 2015 council elections.
The largely leaderless protest movement started with giant rallies in June against a bill backed by Lam that would have allowed extraditions to China's opaque justice system.
The bill was eventually declared "dead" as public pressure grew, but the anger it unleashed sparked wider calls for democracy, which Lam's government has resisted.
China has said the unrest is being fomented by violent foreign-backed criminals.
Long queues snaked out of polling stations across the territory of around 7.5 million on Sunday.
"Even though one ballot can only help a little, I still hope it can bring change to society and support street protests in some way," 19-year-old student Michael Ng, voting for the first time, told AFP.
The vote is the closest Hong Kongers get to direct representation.
The territory's legislature is elected by a mix of popular vote and industry groups stacked with China loyalists, which ensures Beijing's control.
But some candidates for next year's legislative elections will be drawn from district councils, and the bodies also will contribute 117 members to the 1,200-strong Beijing-controlled electoral college that chooses the chief executive.
Protests died down in the poll run-up after pro-democracy figures urged calm to avoid triggering any delay or suspension of the polls.
No major disturbances were reported during voting.
Chinese state media ran editorials on Sunday urging Hong Kongers "to vote to end violence".
Campaigning was marred by acrimony, with one pro-democracy candidate having his ear bitten off in an attack, while 17 other candidates of all stripes were arrested over protest-related activities.
Election authorities also banned leading democracy activist Joshua Wong from running, over his support for Hong Kong "self-determination". (AFP)