HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The Hong Kong government is extremely keen to see the district council elections take place this Sunday (Nov 24) as scheduled, but much depends on the actions of anti-government protesters, said Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung.
Speaking to the media outside the Legislative Council chamber on Wednesday, Mr Cheung, the city's No. 2 official, appealed to protesters to cooperate with the authorities so that the local elections can go ahead as planned.
“It takes two to tango. No matter how committed we are to maintain law and order, it really counts on whether they cooperate,” said Mr Cheung. “If they start vandalising, start violence, start arson in many places, blocking the roads, stopping traffic, it will be very difficult for people to go to the (polling stations).”
The election will be the largest ever – every single seat will be contested, so “it’s a really meaningful, democratic exercise”, said Mr Cheung. “That’s why we are extremely keen...to see a proper, safe, fair, honest and particularly impartial election this Sunday.”
Mr Cheung’s appeal came as protesters carried out a new wave of transit disruptions on Wednesday, as the city attempted to return to normalcy after days of roadblocks, sieges and pitched street battles. Several of Hong Kong’s rail services were suspended or slowed as protesters answered calls to disrupt the morning commute.
As Hong Kong grapples with a violent university siege that has captivated the world, things could potentially get even worse this weekend if the government scraps the first citywide exercise of democracy since the unrest began in June.
With most legal protest marches and rallies banned by the government in recent months, the historically low-key elections have emerged as one of the few ways Hong Kongers can voice their opinion on the state of the city.
"In times of such unprecedented crisis, where many people have been feeling so depressed and helpless, I think the election can help by providing an outlet that allows people to look forward for a change," said Alice, a Hong Kong-born school teacher in her 40s, who hopes to vote this Sunday.
"Nothing should stop or postpone the election, or people's anger may not be eased," she said.
With pro-democracy lawmakers predicted to make gains, a government decision to cancel the elections would almost certainly set off fresh protests building on the increasingly violent demonstrations this month.
Although Hong Kong's local district councillors wield little real power, they help decide the make-up of a committee that picks the city's leader. That's all the more important, given protesters are flooding the streets and paralysing the city for demands like the right to nominate and elect leaders of their own choosing, something Beijing has refused.
"Any delay or cancellation would further fuel the protests and become a driving factor in the US passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act," said Verisk Maplecroft, a business and political risk advisory firm, in a research note this week.
Mrs Lam can delay the election for as long as 14 days or even longer if she again invokes the Emergency Regulations Ordinance used in October to ban face masks worn by protesters. That was ruled unconstitutional by a Hong Kong court earlier this week, a decision denounced by Beijing.
Administration officials have repeatedly warned that the worsening protests could make it impossible to conduct a citywide poll that includes more than 1,000 candidates for 452 local positions, more than four million voters and 20,000 polling booth staff.
And the worry about violence is real: One candidate has already been stabbed, and numerous mob attacks have taken place in recent months.
"If voters can't vote in a safe environment, it'd be difficult to hold a fair and just election," Mrs Lam said on Tuesday morning, as heavily armed police officers continued to surround a fortified university campus on the Kowloon side of the city's harbour.
"As long as there is no violence or intimidation, we of course want to hold this election. But it's not the government who creates such violence or intimidation," she said.
Those elected to the 18 district councils do not have the authority to pass laws or make decisions on government policies. They mostly advise the city's Chief Executive on matters including fixing up parks, setting up recycling facilities and organising community activities.
Still, they are directly elected by the public - a more democratic process than the one to pick the city's more powerful Legislative Council, which has reserved seats set aside for members of the business community. They also help appoint 117 of the 1,200 electors that select the city's Chief Executive, and could help set the tone for the more consequential vote for seats on the local legislature next year.
Enthusiasm has never been higher: This is the first time that there have been competitive races in every seat. In the last decade, voters have mostly favoured the so-called pro-establishment camp, with roughly 68 per cent of local district council positions now held by pro-government politicians compared with just 28 per cent for pro-democracy lawmakers, according to local news organisation HK01.
But opposition politicians are looking to benefit from rising dissatisfaction with the government's performance, which has surged to 80 per cent from 40 per cent a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. Mrs Lam's popularity has fallen to record lows over five months of unrest.
"The district council elections are an important opportunity for Hong Kong citizens to show their stances on the extradition Bill, use of force by the police, and the protests," said Mr Icarus Wong, a co-founder of rights group Civil Rights Observer.
"The government should try their best to ensure that they happen. It's a chance for Hong Kong citizens to express their voice in a peaceful way and make a difference."
For the last few weeks, councillors have unfurled election banners across the city. Many have spent hours on the streets, shaking hands with residents. Even lawmakers in the pro-establishment camp - generally aligned politically with Beijing - are calling on the Chief Executive to see that the elections happen as planned, despite the likelihood that they will be hurt by the polls.
"We are fighting an uphill battle for our pro-establishment camp," said lawmaker Holden Chow. Still, he said, people will be angry if they aren't allowed to express their views. "The government has a duty to make sure the elections are carried out on a safe and fair basis."