HONK KONG - Over the past five months, millions have marched through Hong Kong, demanding democratic reform in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. On Sunday (November 24), Hong Kongers will finally get a chance to express their opinion, albeit in a limited way, by casting votes.
WATCH: William Gallo's video report.
If the election goes ahead as planned, Hong Kongers will choose over 400 members of 18 district councils scattered across the tiny territory — a crucial barometer of public opinion amid a wave of anti-government protests that have become increasingly aggressive.
The hyper-local district council members don’t actually wield that much power but under Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic system, the vote could have major effects on how the territory’s more influential Legislative Council and chief executive are selected in the future.
Many in the pro-democracy camp fear the government will postpone or cancel the vote over concerns about election violence. In recent weeks, several pro-democracy figures have been attacked, including a politician whose ear was partially bitten off during a clash outside a mall. A pro-Beijing politician was also stabbed by a man carrying a bouquet of flowers.
Some pro-Beijing voices are calling for the vote to be delayed until calm is restored. The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, last week ran a commentary saying “fair elections” are only possible after authorities “decisively put down the riots” and restore peace.
Government urged to hold vote
However, a broad range of public figures is demanding the election go ahead as planned, warning that delaying the vote would only create more public frustration.
“It would be a grave error to cancel those elections,” said Steve Vickers, the former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
Vickers, who heads the SVA risk consultancy group, concedes it may be a challenge for police to keep factions apart during the vote. He said that shouldn't prevent the election from happening, though.
“Ugly though it may be, I think it’s a lot better to make sure the elections occur,” Vickers said. “The district council elections are the most fundamental building block of democracy in Hong Kong.”
Tommy Cheung, a pro-democracy candidate running for district council in the Yuen Long district, a culturally diverse community with a young middle class population, said canceling or delaying the vote risks bringing a “disaster to Hong Kong society.”
“You would be destroying the ability of people to use the establishment to solve problems,” Cheung told VOA. “People supporting peaceful, nonviolent protests would change into supporting violent protests.”
The protests have already escalated in recent weeks — with smaller groups of hardcore 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.
The protests started in June as a reaction against a now-scrapped proposal that could have resulted in Hong Kongers being extradited to mainland China. A vast number of Hong Kongers saw the proposal as the latest erosion of the “one country, two systems” principle with which Beijing has governed the former British colony.
Despite the protester violence, the movement still enjoys widespread public support, polls suggest. Meanwhile, the approval of Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly chief executive, Carrie Lam, has fallen to a record low of about 20%.
Questions of fairness
Lam has vowed to do her “very best” to ensure the election takes place “in a safe and orderly manner.” Even if the election is held on time, though, there are questions over whether it will be fair.
During the past several years, Hong Kong authorities have disqualified 10 candidates, either before or after the vote. The government accused them of violating the law by advocating independence or self-determination.
This time around, the only candidate barred from running was high-profile student activist Joshua Wong. Authorities accused Wong of promoting “self-determination.” Wong insists he does not support independence, but only greater protection of Hong Kong’s limited autonomy from Beijing.
“The system has been very unfair, but still we try our best to tell the whole world and the Hong Kong government that indeed we have the majority of Hong Kong citizens’ support,” said activist and scholar Edward Yiu.
Yiu won a seat in the Legislative Council in 2016, but was disqualified for improperly taking the oath of office after he added several phrases mentioning democratic and other reforms. Still, he said the elections are vital.
“Even though it may not be the solution to all problems, [the elections] are a very important platform to make government officials realize that the public have an opinion, [and] that they have to listen,” he said.
More voters, more choices
Amid the protests, Hong Kong has seen a major surge in voter registrations, 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.
That surge has been fueled by an increase in voter registrations by those aged 18-35, which could benefit the pro-democracy camp, the paper reported.
Voters will also have more choices this election. The previous district council election saw more than 60 pro-establishment candidates win unopposed. That won’t be the case this year, with pro-establishment and pro-democracy candidates facing off in nearly every district.
It is the most candidates the pro-democracy camp has ever run in district council elections, according to local media reports.
Why it’s important
The district council election is significant for reasons that may not be immediately obvious, thanks in part to Hong Kong’s complicated, quasi-democratic electoral system.
On the one hand, local district councils have no power to pass legislation, essentially serving as advisory bodies for decisions such as building roads or schools.
But crucially, the district councils also help select members of the more influential Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s legislature, only about half of which is directly elected.
District council members also have 117 seats on the committee of about 1,200 people who choose Hong Kong’s chief executive.
“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,” she said.
At a recent pro-democracy rally in central Hong Kong, many protesters said they plan to vote, but 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 named 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 on the 24th of November."