The district council elections scheduled for November 24 are shaping up to be the most significant in a generation. The results will be closely scrutinised by the Hong Kong government, Beijing's liaison office and the central government in the capital.
Depending on the outcome, they may significantly impact the political life expectancy of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
To understand why, we need to go back to the results of the last set of elections in 2015. They took place in the aftermath of the Occupy movement and were a resounding success for pro-administration forces. Over 1.4 million people voted (a turnout rate of 47 per cent) for the 431 members (for the first time, all elected) and ended with government-friendly parties controlling all 18 district councils.
By securing a majority of members in both the New Territories and the urban area, the same forces could choose from among themselves all 117 representatives on the Election Committee which elected the chief executive in 2017.
The results may not be nearly as administration-friendly this time around. Hong Kong's underlying issues (slow progress of political reform; a wide and burgeoning wealth gap with particular reference to property prices and; the perceived increase in mainlandisation of society and the economy) remain largely unchanged since 2015.
The big new factor, of course, is the furore originally generated by a proposal to overhaul Hong Kong's extradition regime. Although the amendment bill itself is now due to be withdrawn, the passions stirred up still run hot.
One result has been an upsurge in people on the electoral register for the first time. When rolls were opened earlier this year, over 386,000 individuals registered as new voters, the biggest annual gain since at least 2003. Particularly striking was the number of new voters in the 18-35 years age bracket, which surged by more than 12 per cent.
It seems likely that a large part of this increase is related to the ongoing protests. The increase will lead to an additional 700-1,000 new voters per constituency. This factor by itself could be enough to change the result in marginal seats. If it is allied to an upsurge in turnout because of heightened political interest, say to over 50 per cent, then we could be in for quite an abrupt turnaround in fortunes.
It is possible to envisage a good number of the 117 Election Committee places going to pan-democratic forces for the first time. Certainly the DAB and other pro-government parties are alert to this danger. They feel their prospects will suffer because they stood by the government's extradition reform proposals until the last minute, and were not even consulted on the decision to "suspend" the bill.
Some even murmur about the possibility of delaying the elections, though that seems unlikely.
There are several other factors at play which could affect turnout and voter intentions. One will be the decisions on which candidates to approve and which to disqualify. If high-profile names - Joshua Wong Chi-fung, for example - are allowed to run, then this is likely to generate huge interest and stir turnout, but disqualification would also be controversial and have the same effect.
Traditionally, voters at the district level have been quite conservative and do not normally approve of the obstructionist tactics often employed by pan-democrats, like the disruption of last week's policy address. And there is a particular aversion to violence. However, these are not normal times.
Polling by Chinese University's media faculty on behalf of another newspaper showed over 80 per cent of respondents supported an independent commission of inquiry to examine all aspects of the extradition saga. The government keeps ruling this out, which may count against those parties perceived as government supporters.
Another striking finding: over 70 per cent did not trust the police, so repeated appeals for restoring law and order are not having their usual effect.
One of the most notable aspects of public sentiment has been the tolerance so many members of the public have for the protesters' violence and vandalism. There have been many instances of residents booing the police, or opening doors to help protesters avoid arrest.
I queried an election coordinator of the pan-democratic forces for an explanation on the reasons for this striking departure from normal public attitude. His interpretation was that the government ignored the peaceful march on June 9, but the students stepped in to save the day by blockading the Legislative Council building on June 12 to prevent the bill's enactment. Many thought the police's use of force on that day was excessive.
It cannot be confirmed that his reading of the public mood is correct or, if it is, that it will endure until election day. "A week in politics is a long time", as Harold Wilson supposedly observed more than 50 years ago, and we have almost five to go.
There is always scope for a major incident to swing public opinion at the last minute - what Americans call the "October surprise". Given the recent escalation of violence, it is regrettably possible to envisage the death of a police officer, a protester or even a passer-by - or a high-profile suicide.
No doubt there will be many other opinion polls in the coming weeks to try to monitor shifting public mood. But, on November 24, we will have the only poll that really matters: the one at the ballot box.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises
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