A record number of people voted in Hong Kong district elections on Sunday, a poll that is viewed as a barometer of support for Chief Carrie Lam.
Brutal attacks on election candidates in recent weeks have thrust the lowest tier of Government in the Chinese-ruled city into the world spotlight as Lam struggles to quash angry demands for universal suffrage. Government data showed more than 2.1 million people had voted by 4.30 p.m, or a turnout rate of 52%, with six hours left until polling stations closed, way above the 1.47 million who voted in the last district elections four years ago
There was only a small police presence, in contrast to reports that riot police planned to guard all polling stations and almost the entire force of 31,000 would be on duty.
First results should start trickling in before midnight. The high levels of participation could have been triggered by six months of anti-government protests -often turning violent-, and the results of this election could mean a symbolic victory for the opposition.
What is a district council poll?
The disctrict councils are the local councils for the 18 districts of Hong Kong. They are under the Government’s supervission and their function is mainly advisory. Each term of the district council lasts four years.
The councils take part in matters that affect the well-being of people in their district, such as the use of public facilities and services, the adequacy of Government policies for the area, the management of public funds allocated to the district or the promotion of recreational and environmental activities.
The total number of council members is 479: 452 of them are elected democratically and 27 are ex officio members, part of the Rural Committee that represents indigenous residents in the New Territories of Hong Kong.
This is the first year that all the seats are being contested: a record 1,104 candidates are running for 452 seats and 4.1 million people have enrolled to vote for district, more than half Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million.
As they are considered part of an advisory body, District Council members have little power to take decisions. However, they could have a significant role in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief, as the election committe includes 117 council members out of 1,200 seats.
Who is running in this election?
Hong Kong’s political spectrum is complex and very diverse, with more than twenty different parties holding seats in the council. They can be broadly divided into pro-Beijing, that currently hold the power in all but one of the councils, and pro-democracy parties, who typically lead the opposition.
The pro-Beijing DAB – Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong- is the undisputed leader and currently holds 118 seats on the district councils.
The anti-government parties have traditionally been highly fragmented and there is not a main force that could challenge the DAB’s leadership.
But after anti-government protests sparked during the last months, young pro-democracy activists are now battling in some seats that were once uncontested and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates. However, they have encountered some opposition from authorities. Joshua Wong, one of the most prominent activists, who was barred from running, urged people to vote to show “our discontent with Beijing”.
During the last election in 2015, the pro-establishment Chinese backed parties won with a clear majority of 783,000 votes compared with 540,000 for the anti-government parties. In today’s election, pro-democracy candidates are hoping to achieve a better result that could erode Beijing’s hegemony.
What can pro-democracy supporters achieve in this election?
This election is considered to be a test of support for China-backed Hong Kong Chief Carrie Lam. The Chief Executive is elected by a 1,200-member election committee, that includes 117 chosen by district councillors. In this system, the winner takes it all: whichever group (pro-democracy or pro-Beijing) wins a majority of votes in the Disctric Council elections can claim all the 117 seats.
Anti-government parties already control around 400 committee seats, so a victory in the local election would increase their influence over who shall be the city’s next leader in 2022.
Moreover, if pro-democracy campaigners gain control in today’s poll, they could secure six of the 70 seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
This body has the power to enact, amend or repeal laws, approve budgets, endorse the appointment or removal of judges of the High Court and start an impeachment process against the Chief Executive.
How do the elections work?
The people of Hong Kong will have to choose their 452 district council members of the 18 city councils. The 600 polling stations opened at 7.30am on Sunday and close at 10.30pm, when the vote counting will start.
All Hong Kong permanent residents aged 18 or older can register to vote (anyone that lives in Hong Kong for more than seven years can become a permanent resident). The deadline for new voters´ registration was on July 2, when protest started into the Legislative Council. More than 386,000 new voters registered this year, which was the biggest annual gain since the early 2000.