HONG KONG: Voting at district council elections in Hong Kong began peacefully on Sunday (Nov 24) morning, with no signs of a major police presence at polling booths monitored by Reuters despite nearly six months of sometimes violent unrest in the city.
Brutal attacks on candidates have thrust Hong Kong’s lowest-tier government onto the international stage, with the district elections seen as an important barometer of support for leader Carrie Lam’s embattled administration.
The South China Morning Post on Friday, citing a senior police source, said riot police for the first time would guard all polling stations and almost all officers in the 31,000 strong force would be on duty.
The city’s anti-government movement hopes the ballot will send a message to the Beijing-backed government.
The run-up to Sunday’s polls has seen a muting of major rallies and violent clashes between police and protesters, respite for a city battered by nearly six months of unprecedented political unrest.
A stand-off at Polytechnic University entered its seventh day, with the campus surrounded by police as some protesters remained in classrooms and first aid workers roamed the campus.
Protest forums have urged citizens to vote and to pause acts of disruption in case the government pushes back the polls, which open on Sunday morning for 4.1 million registered voters.
Posts by anti-government users on the popular online board LiHKG urged supporters “not to jeopardise the election”.
The district council polls normally stir little excitement, dominated by candidates allied to the China-backed government with a remit over everyday tasks such as rubbish collections and planning decisions.
But with protests roughing up the city, anti-government candidates are hoping to make a statement to Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the pro-Beijing government, which have refused to concede to the movement’s demands.
Kevin Lai, a 45-year-old IT worker near the front of the line outside Wong Tai Sin primary school in Kowloon, said he came early over fears he wouldn’t be able to vote later.
“Some people are afraid the elections will be stopped by unpredictable reasons — maybe some protests,” he said as hundreds of voters in the landlocked neighbourhood of housing estates wound around a block waiting their turn. “We have to show we stand with Hong Kong,” Lai said. “Most of the councilors stand with the government and are not helping Hong Kong.”
Chan, 31, who was in front of the queue at the Fung Kam Sports Centre in Yuen Long, a rural district near the Chinese border, said she came early because she was expecting a big turnout.
“I have not seen an election like this before, but because of the situation it is important to vote … and I know many people feel like me,” said Chan, who works in sales.
She said she grew up in Yuen Long but did not want to reveal any political allegiances. As she spoke, election officials prepared the ballot box in the middle of a basketball court. A lone police officer watched them.
The poll to choose 452 councillors across 18 districts is the closest voters in Hong Kong get to direct representation – but turnout is usually unremarkable.
Nearly 400,000 new voters have registered, however, which is widely interpreted as a positive sign for the pro-democracy camp.
Police will be deployed at polling stations and on the city streets on Sunday to prevent any disruption.
“If you create massive chaos or carry out unlawful deeds it will be difficult to hold a fair election,” government Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said Saturday.
“It’s a real democratic exercise. I really want people to treasure it.”
Hong Kong’s political unrest started in June in opposition to an extradition bill to China.
Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, the movement snowballed into wider calls for democracy and investigations into alleged police brutality.
The district polls remain the city’s freest. In contrast, members of the city’s legislature are elected by a mix of the popular vote and industry groups stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The city’s chief executive is chosen by a similarly pro-establishment committee.
Analysts expect pro-democracy candidates to make gains in the district councils, but to still fall well short of a majority of the 452 slots.
In a bid to get out their vote, pro-democracy groups have made “HOW TO CAST A VOTE” airdrops.
The messages urge young voters to turn up early, bring their ID and “avoid wearing black shirts and masks” – the unofficial uniform of the protesters – or accidentally spoiling ballots.
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