Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters will face a test of public opinion at Sunday’s District Council elections, with some interpreting the polls as a “referendum” on the movement which has rocked the city since June.

The District Council has long been dominated by a pro-establishment majority, but the balance of power may shift with all 452 constituencies contested. During the previous District Council election in 2015, the winners in 68 constituencies were decided by default.

2019 District Council election briefing session
2019 District Council election briefing session. Photo: Citizen News.

A record 4.13 million people are eligible to vote, with about 320,000 being voters who registered in the past year – many spurred by the heightened political climate and a protester-led voter registration campaign.

The election arrived at a time of political upheaval and escalating violence, as the government faces its worst crisis since the Handover. The fierce clashes across the city – which in the past week focused on the Polytechnic University – had earlier prompted a top minister to float the idea that the election may be delayed.

However, some protesters have toned down their activities in anticipation of Sunday’s polls. A post on the LIHKG forum, which received almost 5,000 upvotes, said that Hongkongers should not let the government “falsely accuse” them of wrecking the election.

"November 12" Hong Kong Central protest office workers
File photo: inmediahk.net.

The forum user asked others to sign onto his declaration, which read: “For the sake of liberating Hong Kong, we will definitely not disrupt the District Council election on November 24 and vote in person.” Other users also circulated graphics that instructed first-time voters on how to mark their ballots correctly.

Over 610 ordinary polling stations will be open from 7:30am to 10:30pm, according to the Registration and Electoral Office (REO).

Authorities said they were prepared to deal with any attempt to disrupt the poll, with riot police being ordered to stand guard at every polling station – a first in Hong Kong history. Uniformed officers will also patrol the streets in a “high profile” manner, according to the government.

Matthew Cheung
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“I think [patrolling] is necessary to give an impression of safety, and to create a deterrent effect. We all want the government to ensure a fair, safe election,” Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said on Saturday. “This relies on the cooperation of both sides, so I urge protesters not to disrupt the election.”

A backup date for the District Council election has been arranged for December 1. If the operation of a polling station is disrupted midway through election day, voters will be given a corresponding time on the backup date to cast their ballots.

Democrats appeal for support

Since September, pro-democracy candidates running for District Council candidates have been subjected to intimidation and assault. Protest leader Jimmy Sham was hospitalised after being attacked by men wielding hammers, while Andrew Chiu had part of his left ear bitten off by a man in Tai Koo. A pro-Beijing candidate, lawmaker Junius Ho, was also attacked by a knifeman earlier in November.

andrew chiu
Andrew Chiu canvassing in Tai Koo after partially recovering from his attack.

Despite their injuries, both Sham and Chiu were spotted canvassing in the run-up to the Sunday election.

On Saturday afternoon, another pro-democracy candidate – Hendrick Lui – was arrested in Fanling for “obstructing a public officer engaged in public duty.” According to a livestream video shared by Lui, the activist tried to confront a group of cleaners and riot police who were taking down a neighbourhood “Lennon Wall” message board.

Lui asked the cleaners for official documents to support the removal, but police replied they did not need permission to take down the unauthorised message board. After a heated exchange, Lui was arrested and taken to the Sheung Shui Police Station.

He has been released on bail, and will need to report to the police station in mid-December.

Prominent figures in the pro-democracy camp, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, have called on the public to vote. “Voting is the responsibility of everyone, and the responsibility of every Catholic,” he said.

“Especially for young people, in this tense social environment, they have to take up responsibility and vote.”

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.