Millions of voters in Hong Kong will head to the polls on Sunday for the city’s district elections in what’s being herald as the first major test of public sentiment since rioting gripped the Asian financial hub.
The elections are the first poll to be held since the protests began in June over the controversial extradition bill that plunged the Chinese-led city into a political crisis.
District councils in Hong Kong are lower-level government bodies – they take out the trash and fill in the potholes, but the social unrest has given unprecedented importance to the elections.
A record 4.1 million Hongkongers have registered to vote and a heavy presence of riot police will be deployed across the city.
Hong Kong correspondent Ryan Ho Kilpatrick, who has been following the protests since their beginning, told The New Daily they’re being billed as a referendum on public support.
“Although the elections are only for officials who sit on our local councils and deal with simple livelihood issues, they are nonetheless being looked to as a barometer of public sentiment and a referendum on the government and pro-democracy movement,” he said.
“Every seat around the city is being contested between pro-establishment and pro-democracy candidates running on platforms that often include the five demands.
“District Councillors have no power to enact the five demands – besides the 150 members they elect to the 1200-strong election committee that chooses the Chief Executive – but this shows how the protests have become a major election issue nonetheless.”
The elections will take place against a backdrop of tension, bitterness and violence as the siege at Hong Kong university stretches into its ninth day and accusations of intimidation and even fake candidates marred the lead-up.
Netizens have accused some candidates of being “fake umbrella soldiers” running on a pro-democracy platform to split the vote.
Free Hong Kong Press highlighted one candidate, Vannie Poon, whose posters said she was campaigning for “real universal suffrage” and would appear on the ballot paper but who had never given an interview and was not contactable, as a fake candidate.
Pro-establishment, pro-Beijing and pro-democracy candidates have said they’ve experienced violence and intimidation in the lead up to the elections.
Police Commissioner Tang Ping-keung told reporters on Friday they would “deploy high-profile patrols” near polling stations.
Violence has escalated in recent weeks with concern over the death of Chow Tsz-lok, who died on November 8, after a suspicious fall during a clash with police.
Earlier this month, a man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho and in a different incident a knife-wielding man bit off part of pro-democracy district councillor Andrew Chiu’s ear.
Mr Chiu has continued to campaign despite the injury.
District council candidate Clement Woo said members of his pro-establishment camp also had experienced violence and intimidation.
“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters.
Veteran democratic politician Emily Lau said there was a “real concern that the campaign could get violent and nasty, with candidates and offices from both camps getting injured and vandalised”.
The government has urged protesters not to disrupt the voting.
“We do not want to see the postponement or adjournment of the polling unless absolutely necessary,” said Patrick Nip, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs.
But protesters have their own reasons for making sure the vote goes ahead without issue, Mr Ho Kilpatrick said.
“They have collectively agreed to scale back protests so as not to jeopardise the election or give the police an excuse to hold them without charge for the maximum period and cause them to miss their opportunity to vote,” he said.
“Not only will they not engage in any public activities on Sunday but they have even issued a code of conduct, telling each other not to even wear black or face masks at the polling stations.”
The protests have deeply polarised Hong Kong society and that should be reflected in Sunday’s vote, Mr Ho Kilpatrick. said
“The main questions are to what extent the roughly 400,000 new registered voters, most young, will have, and whether more middle-of-the-ground voters will be turned off by chaos caused by the protests and the protest response and turn to pro-government candidates instead.”