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Hong Kong’s District Council elections take place on Nov. 24. Or not.

Here’s what’s so special about this local election

- November 14, 2019

With protests now in their sixth month, Hong Kong faces another challenge: a District Council election scheduled for Nov. 24. These low-level elections are in the spotlight, given the escalating unrest in Hong Kong and the protesters’ demands for universal suffrage.

Hong Kong’s government shows few signs of a reconciliatory approach, and public polls indicate continued public support for the protesters, despite the increase in confrontations between police and protesters. Last month, Hong Kong election officials barred Joshua Wong, a high-profile pro-democracy candidate, from the ballot.

The pro-establishment camp — parties that generally support Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong — has dominated Hong Kong’s local elections since 2007. These candidates face serious challenges as pan-democracy candidates look to capitalize on growing dissatisfaction with Hong Kong’s government to increase their share of District Council seats.

Many voters and legislators also worried that the pro-establishment camp would use the growing trend of vigilantism and vandalism — especially the allegedly staged stabbing of Junius Ho, a hard-line pro-China politician — to postpone or cancel the election, citing security concerns.

Will these elections take place? Here’s what you need to know:

1. There are 452 District Council seats

District Councils are the lowest elected tier in Hong Kong’s political structure. There are 18 Hong Kong districts, each subdivided into constituencies serving a population of approximately 17,000 — making up 452 total District Council seats. Under Hong Kong’s hybrid political structure, the District Council election is one of two avenues in which direct election takes place.

District councilors have no decision-making power over government policies — at most, they advise the government on district or regional issues if asked. Given the small size of each constituency, councilors focus on providing constituent services, addressing noise complaints, parking issues, bike racks and the like. But winning a District Council seat can be a way to have an influence in higher-level politics — the Legislative Council (LegCo) election and the Electoral Committee for the Chief Executive.

2. Voters have favored pro-establishment parties at the district level since 2007

The councilors establish a good rapport with residents through constituent services. This knowledge and presence at the local level are extremely useful for politicians running for the LegCo, especially in solving coordination problems to avoid “wasted votes” as a result of intraparty competition.

Pro-establishment parties have been successful in these District Council elections. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), a Beijing-sponsored party, has been the biggest winner since 2007. DAB has ample capital and human resources to provide constituent services and sponsor activities such as local trips, afternoon teas and hobby classes free of charge or at a reduced rate. By contrast, analysts point out that pan-democracy councilors have fewer resources, limiting the extent and impact of their constituent services.

Another prize is the subcommittee of 117 designated seats for district councilors in the Election Committee that will select Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2022. Critics, however, say this 1,200-member Election Committee and its “small circle” electoral basis heavily favors pro-Beijing and business interests. A strong presence at the District Council has helped the pro-establishment camp claim all the seats in the subcommittee since 2005.

3. What’s so special about this local election this time?

District Council elections seldom center on ideological divides, but rather on personalistic draw — which candidate’s promises appeal to voters. But the protests have highlighted the divisions between pro-government/pan-democracy camps, creating large disadvantages for pro-establishment parties that align with the Hong Kong government on the extradition bill and the refusal to condemn police violence.

According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s approval rate in October reached a new low at 20.2 percent. The Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey at the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows more than half of the sample have zero trust in the police.

A PORI survey on support for the top 10 political groups gives some idea of how the new political rift may translate into voter intent. The biggest pro-establishment parties (DAB, the New People’s Party and the Federation of Trade Unions) saw their support drop almost 20 percent within the past year. If this sentiment does guide voters at the polls later this month, Hong Kong’s pro-establishment parties have reason to worry.

Interestingly, support for traditional pan-democratic parties such as the Democratic Party and the Civic Party has remained largely unchanged this past year. Parties that voters perceive to be more radical (Demosistō, People Power) saw their support increase by 5 to 7 percent. The pan-democrats seemed to avoid the fissure with the grass-roots community that marked the “failure” of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, yet they still need to translate that newfound support into votes to secure victory.

District Council elections are likely to see an influx of younger voters — 392,601 first-time voters have registered, bringing total voter rolls to 4,132,977. The biggest influx of newly registered voters are ages 18 to 40, and they are likely to have anti-government sentiments, which affects how they vote and puts pressure on pro-establishment candidates. However, older voters, who tend to be more conservative, still make up more than half of the voting population.

So what’s next?

Hong Kong has seen increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters — during the weekend, police fired live rounds. There is looming uncertainty over whether the election will take place at all — or the possibility of voter intimidation by police or others, as well as spurious excuses to shut down polling stations.

Many analysts see the District Council elections as a test for Beijing and Hong Kong authorities’ political will to uphold the “one country, two systems” arrangement and hold free and fair elections at the district level. Hong Kong voters will probably view any tampering with the election schedule or process as an attempt to erode one of the few democratic pillars left in Hong Kong’s political system.

Maggie Shum, research associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is a native of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on party organization, participatory institutions and contentious politics in Latin America and Hong Kong.

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