HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong is holding its breath ahead of elections on Sunday, which carry added significance after brutal attacks on candidates and months of unrest by protesters seeking the freedom to choose their own leader.
Police appealed on Friday to protesters in the China-ruled city not to disrupt the lowest-tier, district council elections, held every four years, pointing to nearly six months of protests and street clashes that officials say have brought the city to the “brink of total breakdown”.
“We have to ensure voter safety and let them vote without any interference,” Police Commissioner Tang Ping-keung said at a briefing on Friday after a two-day lull in violence.
He said police would “deploy high-profile patrols” near polling stations. There have been no publicized threats against voters or polling stations.
The protests started over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial, but which soon evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
A man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho this month. Jimmy Sham, a leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front, was beaten by men with hammers in October after his group organized mass rallies against the extradition bill.
A knife-wielding man bit off part of pro-democracy district councillor Andrew Chiu’s ear at the beginning of November.
District council candidate Clement Woo said members of his pro-establishment camp had experienced violence and intimidation.
“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters.
Veteran democratic politician Emily Lau said there was a “real concern that the campaign could get violent and nasty, with candidates and offices from both camps getting injured and vandalized.”
“This is happening already and could get worse,” she told Reuters.
The government urged protesters not to disrupt the vote.
“We do not want to see the postponement or adjournment of the polling unless absolutely necessary,” said Patrick Nip, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs.
A record 1,104 people are running for 452 district seats and a record 4.1 million Hong Kong people have enrolled to vote for district councillors, who control some local spending, and whose daily decisionmaking spans a range of neighborhood issues including recycling, transport and public healthcare.
Some of the seats that were once uncontested, and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates, are now being fought for by young pro-democracy activists.
Although most nominations were approved, authorities barred prominent activist Joshua Wong from running.
The district councils are sometimes seen as a nurturing ground for young political talent. Five district councillors can also run for five seats in the city’s Legislative Council, or mini-parliament, in September 2020.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promised protection of many of its colonial freedoms under a “one country, two systems” for at least 50 years.
Candidates for the chief executive of Hong Kong are chosen by a 1,200-strong election committee dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists, and which also includes district councillors. No opposition candidate has ever been elected Hong Kong’s leader, though several have managed to get on the ballot.
Peaceful street protests calling for universal suffrage, that paralyzed the city for 79 days in 2014, failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.
Joshua Wong, a leader of those protests when just 17, was disqualified from running in Sunday’s elections because of his links to a political group promoting independence for Hong Kong, a red line for Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has the power to cancel the elections up to 24 hours before they begin.
(This story corrects typographical error in final paragraph)
Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by James Pomfret and Gerry Doyle