HONG KONG -- Voters in Hong Kong head to the polls on Sunday for the most closely watched District Council elections since the 1997 handover. The normally staid local polls, held every four years, have taken on a greater urgency amid the widespread and often violent anti-government protests that are now in their sixth month.
Chinese leaders in Beijing are taking a keen interest because district councilors play a potentially pivotal role in the selection of the city's top official, the chief executive. While Hong Kong remains semi-autonomous under the "one country, two systems" legal framework, China has considerable influence over the choice of the city's leader.
The biggest overhang, however, is whether the elections will be held as scheduled. The government has expressed strong concerns over potential disruption to the elections due to the ongoing standoffs between police and protesters. It said the polls will go ahead only if protesters stop all violence and blocking of roads and cease vandalizing transport facilities.
Here are five things to know about the elections:
What are the District Councils?
District Council members serve as a line of communication between the public and the government. Unlike members of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's lawmaking body, district councilors have little actual power to make policy or set budgets in the city's 18 districts. The councils are an "advisory body," said Bonnie Leung, a current district councilor and pro-democracy campaigner. "We have meetings suggesting what government officials should do at the district levels, but whether they listen to us or not is their decision."
All together, there are 479 district councilors, of which 452 are elected directly by voters. This is the first year that all 452 seats are being contested, as pro-democracy candidates rushed to declare their candidacies. The current makeup of the councils is tipped heavily toward pro-establishment members, who hold 327 seats. The pan-democrats number 118, and there are seven independents.
What is at stake?
Although district councilors do not wield much power, voters could show their resistance by affecting the selection process for the chief executive.
Hong Kong's leader is selected by a 1,200-member election committee -- made up primarily of businesspeople and other prominent individuals seen as sympathetic to Beijing.
The election committee includes 117 district councilors, and whichever group -- pro-establishment or pro-democracy -- wins an overall majority of votes in the District Council elections is able to claim those 117 spots.
The issue then becomes a matter of simple math: To become a nominee for chief executive, a candidate needs at least 150 votes among election committee members. The pro-democracy camp says that if it can flip the majority of District Council seats to its side, that will put them within reach of the required 150 votes, provided they get support from other committee members.
Although the odds are still stacked against them, pan-democrats believe they have a chance to nominate one of their own for chief executive in 2022.
What do the elections mean for Chief Executive Carrie Lam?
The vote is seen by analysts as an opportunity for the public to express their anger at the current government. Opinion polls show that the embattled chief executive is widely unpopular. Lam's disapproval rating is higher than any of her predecessors, and pro-democracy candidates are hoping to turn that frustration to their advantage.
A record 4.13 million people have registered to vote this year, compared with 3.12 million in 2015, when turnout was 47%. Turnout this year is expected to be much higher, especially since there has been a surge in the number of registrations among young people, many of whom have been at the forefront of the demonstrations. The legal voting age is 18.
Why is there speculation that the elections will be postponed?
The government has warned that increasingly violent demonstrations could affect the elections.
In addition, several politicians and candidates were recently arrested on illegal assembly, disorderly conduct and other charges. There also have been continuing attacks on candidates, including a pro-democracy hopeful who had his ear bitten off in a brazen attack earlier this month.
However, any postponement or cancellation would almost certainly inflame tensions, and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have warned the Lam administration against such a move.
Who is running?
The government reported that it received 1,104 forms from candidates during last month's nomination period. Candidates include people in the business community and members of the Legislative Council. Prominent activist Joshua Wong was the only candidate rejected by election officials because of his advocacy of self-determination for Hong Kong.
Leung, who has served one term and is not running for reelection, said the nature of the elections favors candidates who have a close association with their neighborhoods. "Political views take a part, but not a large part," she said, noting that candidates must be seen as working hard for their constituents' interests. To win elections, it is crucial for candidates to spend time in their districts and "to show your face and build relationships with people."
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Olivia Tam.