Via Financial Times

Hong Kong will face its first electoral test of public opinion on Sunday since the start of anti-government protests in June. The polls for the city’s 18 district councils are typically focused on humdrum local issues, such as noise pollution and new developments.

But while they will not fundamentally change Hong Kong’s political system, which critics say is stacked against the pro-democracy camp, they are a timely referendum on support for a protest movement that shows little sign of abating. 

The clashes in the past 10 days has been so severe that there has been speculation that the elections will be postponed. A group of protesters remains holed up in a university after more than a week of fierce clashes between police and demonstrators on campuses across the Asian financial centre.

Even the campaign for this year’s elections has been marred by violence. At least eight pro-democracy candidates or activists have been beaten up or attacked, including one who had part of his ear bitten off. An outspoken pro-Beijing councillor, who has been a critic of the demonstrations, was stabbed, and the offices of some pro-establishment councillors have been trashed. 

Will the elections help ease or inflame the tension?

What are the district council elections?

The British colonial government established the district councils to generate grassroots support for its policies after riots inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967. 

This year, 452 seats out of 479 are up for grabs and a record 4.13m people are registered to vote, up 12 per cent from four years ago. Pro-Beijing or pro-establishment parties, which have traditionally had the backing of big business, trade unions and the government, control nearly three-quarters of the seats. But pro-democracy parties are planning to field more than 500 candidates, a record number.

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The elections will be followed next year by a vote for the more important Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. District councillors take up 11 of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council. 

Why is this year’s poll so important?

The protests, which have drawn popular support, have raised the pro-democracy camp’s hopes of a decisive win offering a chance to build a local support base that could help in the Legislative Council elections.

District councillors also comprise 117 seats of the 1,200-member election committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive. This is dominated by pro-Beijing appointees but a foothold on the committee would provide democrats with a voice in the election.

The authorities have banned Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong from participating in this Sunday’s district council elections but allowed other hardline protest leaders to run, including some “localists” — those campaigning with the slogan “Regain Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. 

How do the two sides view their chances?

Some pro-establishment candidates and incumbents fear an electoral bloodbath. “Carrie Lam has betrayed us. We sat on the same boat but she never consults our opinions,” said Kam Man-fung, an incumbent pro-establishment district councillor, referring to Hong Kong’s chief executive. 

Other pro-Beijing figures point to their recovery from difficult patches, such as in 2003 when the government’s attempt to pass an anti-subversion law backed by Beijing led to mass protests and electoral losses. “We have been more pragmatic when it comes to community issues,” said Tam Yiu-chung, a senior member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s largest pro-Beijing party. 

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By contrast, the protest movement has inspired first-time anti-government candidates. “I may not be able to be at the protest frontline fighting but I am fighting the war in the local community and for the minds of the people,” said Kinda Li, a 28-year-old social worker.

He decided to run because he witnessed a young protester attempting to commit suicide. “We, especially the younger ones, never thought of participating in the election previously. But now we think every . . . aspect of civil society is important. We hope to regain Hong Kong, bit by bit.” 

But academics say it would be very difficult for the pro-democracy camp to win a majority. “That would be a very high bar,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

What next?

Academics warn the election will not quell the violent protests unless the government responds to the movement’s demands. Protesters want universal suffrage for the city’s leader; an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality; an amnesty for those arrested; and for protesting not to be classified as rioting, an offence that carries up to 10 years jail in Hong Kong. 

Sing Ming, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, warned: “If the pro-establishment wins the majority, the protest may worsen.”