HONG KONG • The dramatic surge in violence across Hong Kong could threaten local elections on Nov 24. If the vote is not held, many protesters would view it as another sign of the power that they wield from the streets.
The People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, published a commentary on its social media accounts on Tuesday that backed Hong Kong's crackdown on protesters and said the vote should proceed only if calm is restored.
"Only by supporting the police force in decisively putting down the riots can (Hong Kong) return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again."
The district elections would allow a polarised city to vote in Hong Kong's only relatively free electoral exercise. District councillors' responsibilities are largely local, but their seats make up a sizeable portion of the committee that selects Hong Kong's chief executive, with the other half picked by the Chinese government.
The pro-democracy camp hopes to capitalise on public anger at the city's Beijing-backed administration, which has deployed increasing force against protesters demanding full democracy and police accountability.
Since Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to ban face masks - which protesters use to protect themselves from surveillance and tear gas - in public assemblies, some lawmakers worry that the government could use the same powers to postpone the election, citing political turmoil, said lawmaker Dennis Kwok representing the city's legal sector.
Fears of cancellation are not unfounded. In recent weeks, the authorities have arrested several pro-democracy lawmakers and candidates running for district council seats. Democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred from running. Violence against councillors has also increased.
Asked on Tuesday if she would consider postponing the vote, Mrs Lam told reporters the government "hopes that the elections can continue as planned".
While pro-Beijing politicians are likely to face electoral losses, postponing the vote would only make this worse, said professor of Hong Kong politics Ma Ngok at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Voters would see this as manipulation and may come out in bigger numbers," he said, adding that there is no legal provision to cancel elections, only to postpone them for a short period.
A 20-year-old engineering undergraduate, who declined to be named, said it is more important than ever to have the election. If it is not held, "the government will be cutting off yet another avenue of political reform and will push people to take more radical action".