Four million voters are entitled to participate in free and unrestricted local elections in Hong Kong on Sunday. Weary of relentless riots in the city, voters may help pro-establishment candidates defy the odds and win more district council seats than previously estimated.

More than 1,000 candidates from across the political spectrum will be contesting 452 council seats in 18 districts.

Almost 60% of the population has registered to vote in the territory’s only fully democratic elections, and the number of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 35 is up 12% from a year ago, owing to public dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

District council members handle transport and facility issues and serve as a line of communication between the public and the government. A quarter of the councilors join a committee of about 1,200 eligible voters who elect Hong kong’s chief executive.

Elected councilors will begin working for their districts in January 2020.

The high-stakes polls will be a de facto plebiscite amid the protracted political crisis, as members of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic bloc look to tap the widespread frustration over the relentless mass protests in the city to secure a historic single majority in most district councils that used to be firmly in the pro-Beijing camp.

The pan-democrats’ high hopes stem from the government’s bid to bulldoze through the passage of the much-deplored China extradition bill in June, a move that triggered months of unrest that has raged on even after the bill was eventually pulled.

Police use a water cannon outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to disperse protesters on November 17. Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence

The protesters’ use of flash mob tactics to paralyze traffic on weekdays has left many frustrated, particularly those trying to get to work or take their children to school.

After black-clad radicals overran the campuses of the Chinese University and Polytechnic University and effectively turned the learning hubs into “weapons factories” as they mounted stiff resistance to a police siege, some voters’ perceptions shifted towards the pro-establishment candidates, who are still seen as underdogs and also-rans.

Some first-time voters and those who are apolitical and prefer stability may opt for candidates who take a tough stance against violence and vandalism. The entire pro-government camp will double down on a common manifesto of stopping the violence, which will appeal to many of these voters, the Hong Kong Economic Journal quoted a pro-government lawmaker as saying.

The broadsheet also reported that some middle-class residents, most of whom had never bothered to vote in previous elections, showed up in support and condemned the widespread chaos while pro-establishment candidates were on the stump.

A district council election poster. Photo: Handout

About 380,000 residents have registered as new voters, according to government figures, and the turnout rate will likely set a record amid the charged atmosphere.

The Sing Tao Daily reported that China’s Deputy Premier Han Zheng, who heads Beijing’s top task force on Hong Kong affairs, told leaders of the city’s pro-Beijing coalition in a meeting in Shenzhen last weekend that the central authorities “want the election to take place as scheduled.”

Han’s remarks were seen as an assurance after Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other members of her cabinet warned that voters would only have thugs and rioters to blame if Sunday’s polls were postponed, as public safety would be the top consideration.

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