Hong Kong’s 4.12 million registered voters were preparing to take to the polls Sunday to choose 452 District Councillors, in an election widely seen as a de facto referendum on the anti-government movement that has rocked the city for six months.

The movement, sparked by a now-shelved bill that would have allowed for extraditions to China, has turned increasingly violent and disruptive.

Should the District Council elections see the pro-democracy camp make substantial inroads toward reducing or overturning the pro-government parties’ council majorities, it will add pressure on the government to respond to the key demands raised by the protesters, said Dixon Sing Ming, Associate Professor, Division of Social Science, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Conversely, should the pro-establishment parties manage to retain a significant position of strength, this would be interpreted as protest fatigue and dissatisfaction, in particular with radical protesters’ methods of vandalizing the transportation system, firebombing, road closures and large-scale destruction of property.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a political commentator, said this election is a “political thermometer” that could help the pro-democracy camp show the world that protesters’ demands are supported by the public.

But as Asia Times reported on Thursday, riot-weary voters unable to get to work or angry at week-long city-wide school closures may well put more establishment politicians in district council seats.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy or self-described “pan democracy” camp, which rose to prominence with the Umbrella Movement of 2014, faced a major setback in District Council elections the following November. In those 2015 elections, the pro-establishment camp won about 70% of seats in 18 districts and also took control of the chairman seat in all districts.

The results were seen as punishment from their supporters for a lack of progress in the city’s political reform. Some pro-democracy candidates admitted that they failed to impress voters with their works in the districts. Others said they lacked the resources that their opponents had enjoyed.

This time, with the momentum of the protest movement, it is possible the pro-democracy camp could win more seats than the pro-establishment camp in five districts: Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin, Shatin, Kwai Tsing and the Southern District of Hong Kong Island.

People walk past a vandalised Starbucks cafe in Wanchai district in Hong Kong on October 1, 2019, as violent demonstrations take place in the streets of the city on the National Day holiday to mark the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding. – Strife-torn Hong Kong on October 1 marked the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding with defiant “Day of Grief” protests and fresh clashes with police as pro-democracy activists ignored a ban and took to the streets across the city. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Symbolic election

District Councilors do not enjoy many political powers. This election, however, has taken on symbolic meaning as it could show the public’s opinion on the unrest of the past six months, said Chung Kim-wah, Assistant Professor, Social Policy, Social Welfare and Community Development, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

It will not be easy for the pro-establishment camp to continue to control all the 18 district councils, Chung said. If the pro-democracy camp won more than half of the seats in the Sunday election, it could gain 117 seats in the 1,200-member election committee to show more influence in the next Chief Executive election, he said.

If the momentum continues, the pro-democracy camp may be able take even more seats in the Legislative Council election in September 2020.

For a long time, the District Council election has not been seen as a political battle, as candidates tended to compete by providing more tangible benefits, such as discounted travel tours, free moon cakes, meals and medical and legal advisory services. In Hong Kong, providing tangible benefits to voters during non-election period is not a crime.

The pro-democracy camp, however, lacks the manpower and resources to send a candidate to each of the 432 sub-districts, which allowed 68 pro-establishment candidates to win without any competition in 2015.

This time, the pro-democracy camp vowed to win more seats, as well as the agenda-setting power, in the 18 District Councils. A total of 400,000 people, mostly under 35, newly registered to become one of the 4.12 million voters in June and July. It also sent candidates to all sub-districts to increase competition.

Most analysts believed that the pro-democracy camp will win more seats due to a growing anti-government and anti-police sentiment over the past six months amid the extradition bill saga. However, a recent poll showed that the pro-establishment camp has recently seen its rates rebounded.

According to a poll published by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and reported by the Stand News on Friday, the percentage of people who distrusted the police fell to 63% on November 15-20 from 71% on October 8-14.

The October figures were provided by The Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

For the same period, the percentage of people who felt the police had used excessive force decreased to about 65% from 70% while the percentage of people who felt the protesters had used excessive force also fell to 35% from 40%. The numbers appear to show an increasing tolerance for the use force by both sides.

However, the percentage of people who felt the protesters should not “privately punish” those who attacked them grew to 30% from 25%. More than half of all people continued to agree that the protesters have the rights to “subdue” the attackers.

On November 11, a pro-Beijing man who tried to subdue young protesters and quarreled with some people on a bridge in Ma On Shan in the New Territories was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. He had once been in critical condition but is stable now.

On November 14, a 70-year-old Hong Kong man died a day after he was hit by a brick during clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in Sheung Shui. A video showed that the brick was thrown from the protesting side at the man.

The Hong Kong government’s efforts to unite the pro-establishment had shown some positive results over the past month, said Carpier Leung Kai Chi, a political commentator. The protest movement, Leung said, will have to fine-tune its strategy to gain support from the public.

Read: HK violence could fuel rise of pro-government candidates

Read: Vandalism is a necessary tactic, say HK vanguard