HONG KONG — After months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, voters Sunday will have a chance to cast their opinion on the city’s future — albeit through an election for a group of local officials who mainly deal with noise complaints, bus stop locations and neighborhood beautification projects.
The district council is one of the lowest rungs of Hong Kong’s elected offices. It is usually a quiet affair focused on community issues.
But the race has taken on outsize significance in the midst of the increasingly violent protests that have divided the city. The election will be the first test of whether the protests can transform public anger that has led millions to take to the streets into actual votes, or whether the populace has grown weary of acts of civil disobedience that have snarled transportation and forced the closing of schools and businesses.
“Politically speaking, the battle of the district councils as a whole is a crucial battle in taking control,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy legislator who is also running for district council.
It has been an especially intense election season. Several candidates, on both sides, have been attacked. The police fired tear gas at a campaign rally this month and arrested three candidates. Fears have been widespread that the city leadership could postpone the vote over the unrest.
Here’s a look at the race and what is at stake:
A big election for a small office
A call to expand Hong Kong’s limited democracy is one of the demands of the protest movement, which began in June over a now-withdrawn proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Protesters have called for direct elections for the entire legislature, where currently only 40 of the 70 seats are selected by popular vote. They have also called for the chief executive, who is selected by a largely pro-Beijing election committee, to instead be chosen by voters.
The district councils have no lawmaking power. They control small amounts of public funds for simple infrastructure, like rain shelters. They lodge concerns with government departments over noise, traffic, sanitation and other issues. (Of the 479 district council seats, 452 are directly elected.)
The district council members do have a modest role in choosing the chief executive, Hong Kong’s highest official. Whichever side wins a majority of the seats controls 117 votes in the 1,200-member chief executive election committee.
That election committee is dominated by pro-establishment corporate interests, and the chief executives they have selected have always been loyal to Beijing. But a win would give the overall pro-democracy camp control of an additional 10% of the votes, and put it close to the 150 votes necessary to nominate a candidate.
Protester demands encroach on local issues
The brochures of district council candidates typically show neighborhood concerns they pledge to fix: trash-filled alleys, air-conditioners dripping on sidewalks and streets lined with illegally parked cars.
This year, several pro-democracy candidates have included protest slogans on their materials. Law Cheuk-yung, 22, said he was inspired to run for district council because of recent social movements. He said he would demand answers from the police after residents complained of possible testing of tear gas in his district, Tuen Mun.
“I want to imagine local government being more responsive,” he said. “At the moment the district council is just a rubber stamp. They do whatever the government wants.”
For such candidates, it is more about playing to the sentiment of the protests rather than taking action. They would not have much of a role in addressing protesters’ demands, which include an investigation into the police’s use of force, offering amnesty to those arrested in the protests and expanding direct elections.
“They are all trying to capitalize on public anger,” said Suzanne Pepper, a scholar of Chinese politics who lives in Hong Kong.
Traditionally, an establishment stronghold
Establishment parties have long had an advantage in these races, in part because they are much better funded, with backing from businesses. Currently the pro-Beijing camp holds 327 district council seats versus 124 for the pro-democracy group.
Rising interest in the election has meant that pro-democracy candidates are participating in every race, unlike previous years, when some establishment district council members ran unopposed. And after worries about disqualifications, only one of the camp’s candidates, the prominent activist Joshua Wong, was barred from running this year for political reasons. An election officer ruled that Mr. Wong could not uphold Hong Kong law because his political organization viewed independence from China as a possible goal for the city.
A campaign plagued by violence
A string of violent attacks on election candidates has hung over the race. Twelve opposition figures, including prominent politicians and activists as well as first-time candidates, have been ambushed and bloodied by gangs of masked men or attacked while canvassing for votes.
“We can see Hong Kong isn’t as free and as civilized as we’d previously imagined,” said Jannelle Leung, a 25-year-old accountant who was struck in the back of her head with a hard object in early October the day she announced she was officially running. She also said she received sexually harassing phone calls before the attack.
Jocelyn Chau, a first-time candidate like Leung who received similar lurid calls before being punched by a man while canvassing last month in the pro-Beijing neighborhood of North Point, criticized the government for not condemning the attacks on pro-democracy figures. “Not even superficial gestures,” said Chau, 23.
The polarizing pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was injured in a knife attack this month and his offices were vandalized. He called the attack “a dark day for the district council election,” adding that the “orderly election had been completely obliterated.”
A heavy police presence is expected
The attacks on candidates and vandalism have stirred worries that the election might be postponed. Some pro-democracy figures have said that a delay could harm their strength at the polls.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said the government would do its best to ensure the election would go on as scheduled. Chris Tang, the Hong Kong police commissioner, said Friday that there would be a large police presence across the city on Sunday to prevent violence.
The city was convulsed by two weeks of intense protest after the death of a college student who fell from a parking structure near where the police had clashed with protesters. Several campuses have been engulfed by large demonstrations, including Chinese University of Hong Kong, where protesters clashed with the police and occupied the college for five days, and at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where at one point more than 1,000 people were trapped by a police siege.
Patrick Nip, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, warned Monday that further unrest would reduce the chances of the election’s being held as scheduled. He called for an end to violence “and all kinds of duress.”
In the past few days, protests have ebbed drastically, however, as the city prepared to take its conflicts to the polls.