- Despite rumours, officials want the elections to go ahead – even if it means big losses for pro-government candidates – not least because postponing them would be a PR disaster
- But protesters must stand down to ensure everyone feels safe to vote
This Sunday " if everything goes to plan " Hong Kong will hold district council elections. If you are a registered voter, you should already have received your voter's card and the details about your candidates and polling station.
There have been many rumours that the government is thinking of postponing or even cancelling the elections. This speculation is based on the assumption that the administration would prefer to avoid the possibility of a large turnout and a large vote against pro-government candidates.
In an atmosphere of distrust, maybe we should not be surprised that people might believe such a theory. But, in fact, officials very much want the polls to go ahead.
Cancelling these elections would involve legal issues. It would also complicate next year's Legislative Council election, in which five seats are elected by district council members. It could also have repercussions for the chief executive election.
But, most of all, disrupting the process would create a huge public relations problem for the government. Put bluntly, it would look terrible. It would send a message that the administration is afraid of public opinion " and the backlash would only make things worse. If anything, it would be a boost for the most radical protesters.
We cannot be sure how the voting will go. But if voters seriously want to punish the pro-government camp in the polls, there is no point in officials trying to prevent it from happening.
On top of that, district councils form an important part of our political system.
The number of registered electors is over 4.1 million " up from 3.8 million last year. All 452 seats on the 18 district councils are directly elected, making this the most democratic exercise we have in Hong Kong. While they do not have tax-raising or legislative powers, these bodies can and do reflect local residents' opinions to higher levels of policymaking.
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Indeed, in some policy areas such as transport and planning, district councils have a track record of influencing " some would say getting in the way of " government initiatives. Council members also perform an important role by handling their constituents' concerns and complaints.
The councils are therefore valuable, both in serving and assisting local residents and in providing feedback upwards to decision-makers in the government and to other public- and private-sector agencies.
Senior officials are very aware of criticism that our political system is not representative enough. They do not want to do anything to increase that criticism.
The one threat to the district council elections is the potential for disorder, or even violence. After some of the disorder we have seen in recent months, the authorities cannot ignore the possibility of protests affecting polling stations in some way.
Public safety must come first, and the government cannot risk people being hurt if polling stations become targets of violent mobs.
Perhaps the risk of that is minor. But even the possibility of violence could affect the results if, for example, elderly people or people with children choose to stay away rather than cast their votes.
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Protests already affect daily lives with roads and walkways sometimes blocked and some bus and MTR services suspended. If conditions are severe on Sunday, it could make it difficult for some voters to take part in the elections. This would raise the possibility of an unfair vote.
There will probably be complaints of intimidation and doxxing of candidates. We have already seen attacks on candidates and their offices. Such things have happened in the past, and we have Electoral Affairs Commission complaints procedures and election petitions to deal with them.
The key thing is that everyone who wants to vote should be able to do so " without having to worry about their safety, or being hindered or inconvenienced in getting to the polling stations.
The government has no wish, let alone any need, to prevent people from sending a message " for or against the administration " in the elections. The district council polls will be a good opportunity for the community to express its views peacefully and clearly.
But it also has to be fair " and that means everyone should be allowed to take part without being afraid or obstructed. Let us all hope for a calm, peaceful and productive election on Sunday.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong's Executive Council
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