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Hong Kong will have its only truly democratic election this weekend

Tripti Lahiri
In this picture taken on Nov. 21, 2019, district council election candidate Isaac Ho hands out leaflets to people in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, 1,200 people get to choose the city’s leader. In the legislature, only half the seats are filled by direct voting. But in district elections, set for Sunday (Nov. 24), close to 500 local representatives will be selected directly by the territory’s 4 million registered voters.

The weeks ahead of the elections have been marked by fears about whether they would even go ahead. As protester clashes with police became more violent—two major universities were the site of fiery sieges in the last 10 days—a government figure said earlier this week they could be postponed. A back-up date of Dec. 1 has been planned for, but at the time of writing it seemed that the government is making every effort for them to go forward as scheduled, aware no doubt that canceling the only open elections will just fan the flames of the democracy movement.

While the disqualification of democracy figure Joshua Wong, an expected if vindictive outcome, was a stain on the process, there is no shortage of pro-democracy candidates—and they’re widely expected to do very well. Many believe that the elections will offer a barometer of where public support for the demonstrations stand—expecting them to vindicate surveys that show anger at the police and government remains high, far outweighing blame towards the protester for the turmoil of recent weeks. It’s important to have a concrete measure of this.

“This election is very much a referendum: a yellow and blue referendum,” said Richard Chan, 47, a pro-democracy candidate in the suburban and rural New Territories area, where he grew up. The term “yellow-ribbon” has come to be used to designate the pro-democracy protest camp and their supporters, while blue, a reference to police uniforms, stands for conservative or pro-Beijing figures.

Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect—assuming it goes forward as planned.

What is the district council election?

The district council system’s roots go back to the deadly 1967 riots in Hong Kong, which began over labor grievances. After they ended, district offices were set up as a way to monitor grassroots sentiment, providing a channel for the feelings of local residents to be better known to officials before another mass event. Initially made up of appointed members, some representatives began to be elected in the 1980s. In 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, legislation was passed to set up more or less the system that exists now.

The election will elect councils for Hong Kong’s 18 districts. In all, there will be 479 district councilors, of whom 452 are directly elected. The remaining seats go to the chairmen of powerful rural committees. A candidate can be nominated to run with the support of 10 registered voters (excluding themselves) and more than 1,000 candidates are contesting. This is pretty different than any other election (or selection) that exists in Hong Kong.

Close to 450 candidates are from the democratic movement, with groups organizing to make sure that for the first time, every seat is contested.

The councilors deal with strictly local stuff like adding local bus routes or addressing traffic issues—one candidate’s manifesto promises the reopening of a convenience store—but many of the current candidates’ campaign flyers do mention a key protest slogan, “five demands, not one less,”

One of the five demands of the protests that began in June, initially against a now-withdrawn bill, is for the chief executive, as well as for all lawmakers in the Legislative Council, to be directly elected—in other words, for them to be as democratic as these local elections currently are.

What else do they influence?

Remember that 1,200-member committee that gets to choose the chief executive? District councilors get to choose about 120 of the people on that committee. More pro-democracy councilors means more pro-democracy people might get on that selection committee. Right now the pro-democracy camp counts for about 400 seats in the committee, according to Foreign Policy. The next chief executive “election is in 2022″—unless chief executive Carrie Lam steps down, another of the protester’s demands.

Again, their function as a way to pass public opinion up the official chain is important—before public anger reaches the level where people feel they have no option but to go to the streets. Chan said one reason he was running is that he felt that district councils haven’t been doing a good enough job of that. Certainly, the depth of anger of this summer’s protests appears to have been a great surprise to the government.

“The district councils are wilfully serving as a rubber stamp, only endorsing government policies rather than reflecting the people’s will to the government,” he said.

Who gets to vote?

Anyone who’s a permanent resident of Hong Kong, resides here, and is 18 or older can register to vote (anyone who lives in Hong Kong for seven years can apply to become a permanent resident). Out of a population of 7.5 million, 4.1 million are registered to vote, the highest figure ever in the territory since direct voting began to be introduced in the 1990s. Over 30% of voters are older than 60, which means they often need special help to vote.

The deadline for new voter registration was on July 2—a day after the handover anniversary, when protesters broke into the Legislative Council. This year saw a surge in registrations, with 386,000 people signing up.

Lam will cast her vote early in the morning in the city’s Central and Western council district, which is also where the chief executive’s residence is located. In the last district elections, more than 1.46 million people voted, a turnout of 47%.

Has there been election violence?

A number of candidates have faced physical attacks from unknown assailants. In one of the most serious attacks, Jimmy Sham, a leader with the civil society group that called many of the biggest protests in Hong Kong this year, was set upon with hammers and spanners and had to be hospitalized. In another case, a pro-Beijing candidate reviled by the protest movement was stabbed.

Chan, meanwhile, was pepper-sprayed and subdued on the ground by police during a rally for candidates in October.

The government said it would deploy riot police at polling stations on Sunday in order to maintain order—raising concerns that their very presence could provoke scuffles.

There are 610 polling stations, four of which had to be relocated because of recent protests. Two of those were at university campuses. In case any polling station experiences conflict on Sunday, voting will be suspended for 90 minutes and hours extended accordingly.

When will the results be out?

Counting will start as soon as polls close at 10:30pm local time, with the first results likely to come the following morning. Official results will also be published in the government gazette, possibly on Nov. 29 (pdf).

 

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