Hong Kongers are voting Sunday in a local election widely seen as a de facto referendum on pro-democracy protests that have recently taken a more aggressive turn.
The territory is on edge following days of intense clashes between police and groups of mostly student protesters, though the violence has subsided in the past few days.
Though the district council members being chosen Sunday have little power, pro-democracy forces still hope for a big win that will confirm public support for the protests.
Police have promised a heavy security presence at voting locations. Public broadcaster RTHK reports officers will be stationed inside and outside polling stations in riot gear.
“If there’s any violence, we will deal with it immediately, without hesitation,” Chris Tang, Hong Kong’s police commissioner, said.
Hong Kongers are choosing more than 400 members of 18 district councils scattered across the tiny territory. The district councils essentially serve as advisory bodies for local matters such as building roads or schools.
“I think the political message is more important than anything else,” Ma Ngok, a political scientist and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said. “If the democrats really score a landslide victory, it will show very clearly that the public is in support of the movement.”
Hong Kong has seen five months of pro-democracy protests. The protests initially took the form of massive demonstrations against a reviled extradition bill, which could have resulted in Hong Kongers being tried in China’s politicized court system.
The protests have escalated in recent weeks, with smaller groups of hard-core protesters destroying public infrastructure, defacing symbols of state power and clashing with police. Protesters defend the moves as an appropriate reaction to police violence and the government’s refusal to meet their demands.
Despite the protester violence, polls suggest the movement still enjoys widespread public support. Meanwhile, the approval of Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly chief executive, Carrie Lam, has fallen to a record low of about 20%.
Under Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic system, district councils have no power to pass legislation. But the vote could affect how the territory’s more influential Legislative Council and chief executive are selected in the future.
“That’s a big deal,” said Emily Lau, a former Legislative Council member and prominent member of the pro-democracy camp. “Because of this constitutional linkage, it makes the significance of the district council much bigger than its powers show you.”
The pro-democracy camp has tried to use the protests as a mobilizing force ahead of the vote and is fielding an unprecedented number of candidates.
But they have a lot of ground to make up. Pro-government forces make up the majority in all 18 district councils, with the so-called “pan-democrats” taking up only about 25% of the overall seats, Ma said.
Hong Kong has seen a major surge in voter registration, particularly among young people. Nearly 386,000 people have registered to vote in the past year, the most since at least 2003, according to the South China Morning Post.
Voter sentiment mixed
At a recent pro-democracy rally in central Hong Kong, many protesters said they plan to vote, but they were divided on whether the election will lead to real change.
“I’m not excited,” said Ip, giving only her first name. “I think voting is one of our ways to express our voice, but I doubt the results will be very good.”
Another demonstrator, who gave the name Ms. Chan, said she also intends to send a message by voting.
“The government needs to listen to the people,” she said. “They do many wrong things, so I think many people will go out and vote.”