HONG KONG, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Nearly six months into a protest movement that has shaken the city to its foundations, Hong Kongers are getting ready for the rare chance to exercise their democratic rights in local elections this weekend.
On Sunday, elections will be held for the 452 seats on the District Council, the lowest rung of Hong Kong's government.
The councilor roles are extremely limited, with little political power and a focus on community-level issues such as parking and trash collection, but they are the only ones chosen in Hong Kong through full direct representation. Only half the seats on the law-making Legislative Council are filled by direct voting and Hong Kong's leader, the chief executive, is selected by a committee of 1,200 electors.
Turnout and voter interest have been muted in the past, but this year, the surging conflict in Hong Kong has infused the sleepy local elections with a surprising sense of urgency.
Jason Y. Ng, a pro-democracy activist and convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said Sunday's elections are "enormously significant" because they represent the first chance since the protests began for millions of citizens to register their opinions about the movement in an official forum.
"Citizens will use their votes to choose between pro-protester and pro-establishment candidates, making the elections a de facto referendum on the protest movement and what direction it should take," he said.
Frederick Fung, who is running as an independent candidate in the Tsim Sha Tsui West constituency but is a supporter of the pro-democracy movement, said that in the past, District Council elections were focused mostly on the individuals running and not on their political affiliations.
"Before, the District Council elections had almost no political meaning," he said. "This time, with all the factions and division and confrontation, the voters want to show whether they stand with the people or with the government."
Well-organized and deep-pocketed pro-Beijing parties and candidates have consistently held the majority of seats, but this year pro-democracy candidates are hoping to reverse the balance of power. A victory at the polls would give the pan-democrats at least a small say in the selection process for the next leader of Hong Kong, as 117 of the 1,200 seats in the electoral college automatically go to the District Council majority.
Most observers are expecting a record turnout on Sunday. There are 4.13 million registered voters for the election, according to official figures, an increase of 386,000 from the previous contest in 2015. That year saw a turnout of 47 percent, considered a historic high compared to 41 percent in 2011 and 39 percent in 2007.
"In the absence of real democracy, this is all Hong Kong has," said Jim Rice, a constitutional legal scholar who has lived in Hong Kong for 26 years. "This is a litmus test and people are taking it seriously this time."
Against the backdrop of months of turmoil, this election season has been far more charged than usual. A group of pro-democracy candidates was arrested at a peaceful protest earlier this month and several others have faced violent attacks, including district councilor Andrew Chiu, who had part of his ear bitten off by an assailant.
Joshua Wong, one of Hong Kong's leading pro-democracy figures since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, had planned to run but was disqualified last month after an election official decided his calls for self-determination in Hong Kong rendered him ineligible.
Authorities warned earlier this week that the elections were in danger of being postponed in the wake of a siege of Polytechnic University campus by police that saw some of the most extreme violence since the protests began.
Constitutional Affairs Secretary Patrick Nip said Monday the violence "has obviously reduced the chance of holding the elections as scheduled and I'm very worried and anxious about this."
As of Friday, however, the polls appeared to be on track. Extra security will be deployed, including riot police being sent out to guard the more than 600 polling stations for the first time in Hong Kong's history, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
While several dozen student protesters remain on the Polytechnic University campus, protests around the city have been toned down in recent days.
On Friday afternoon, a lunchtime rally in Hong Kong's Central business district drew small crowds of demonstrators, many of them office workers in face-obscuring masks, to chant familiar slogans calling for the movement's demands to be met.
However, a new call was also added to the repertoire: "Cast your vote on Sunday."
One mask-wearing protester, who gave his name as Robert, said that he wasn't interested in the District Council elections in the past but would be voting this time.
"We have to support the pro-democracy candidates," he said. "This won't solve all our problems, but it can help us move forward. It gives us more of a voice."