Voters in Hong Kong going to polling stations this Sunday to select new district councilors will be greeted by members of the riot squad and members of the special duty unit in some constituencies thought to be prone to disruptions with the maelstrom of chaos and protests engulfing the city in its fifth straight month.
Police have devised contingency plans to deploy and marshal units citywide to ensure a smooth vote and to keep troublemakers at bay, as well as another emergency response mechanism should the government decide to cancel or suspend the polls in light of a deteriorating situation, if radicals launch flash mob attacks.
The election is being seen as a de facto referendum on the level of support for the anti-government movement that has rocked the city for nearly six months.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s No 2 official, stressed the government’s determination to go ahead with the election after Beijing cadres overseeing the city’s affairs reportedly urged it to be held as scheduled.
But Executive Councillor and former Security Minister Regina Ip, whose New People’s Party has fielded about a dozen candidates, is the latest one from the pro-establishment camp to say she is perturbed by the “atmosphere of terror” overshadowing the vote, counting and outcome.
“We have talked to the government and police about offering protection [to our candidates], but, of course, given that the police have been overstretched in dealing with the months of unrest, the force cannot give protection to all the candidates,” Ip told RTHK.
The South China Morning Post on Friday quoted an unnamed senior police source as saying that almost all officers in the 40,000-strong force would report for duty on election day, with another army of about 3,000 riot control officers and crime investigators on deck in case of any emergency – an unprecedented arrangement for local polls.
Still, there have been rumors every day that the government has not ruled out postponing the vote entirely.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said her source within the administration told her a new election would not be held until the first half of 2021, if the situation on Sunday gets too precarious for people to cast their vote.
She told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that since the government would need to prepare for an even bigger vote, the Legislative Council election, in 2020, organizing two elections in one year was risky and unrealistic.
Mo lashed out at the government’s ‘ulterior motive’ to delay the high-stakes vote, which has become a de-facto referendum amid people’s simmering discontent, triggered by a now-retracted China extradition bill and how officials and police have been handling the demonstrations.
She said officials also want the temperature to cool down a bit as many incumbent pro-establishment district councilors fear they would lose their seats amid the pervasive anti-government sentiments.
Previously, the government assured that in case the vote was postponed, a new election would be held within a week, though many questioned if the situation could improve in such a short time.
But Ip said the authorities had no power to cancel an election or delay it for too long.
“Under our laws, the chief executive – the leader of Hong Kong – has no power to cancel an election. The leader and the Electoral Affairs Commission have the power to postpone the election under certain circumstances, but only for 14 days,” she said.
“This is an unprecedented situation. I’m not sure they know how to handle it so we can only make an appeal to the government to make sure that we can have a fair chance of getting the vote out.”