Hong Kong's local election could be most important ever

Stuart Ramsay, chief correspondent, in Hong Kong

I haven’t covered a local council election since I was in my early 20s, but this is something completely different.

Hong Kong only has one proper election and it is every four years and this is it.

From the early morning they lined up to vote in record numbers. More people have registered to vote than ever before. More candidates are standing and every seat is being contested for the very first time.

It is not usually considered very important and not many people bother to turn out. But in truth, there has never been an election here quite like this one.

The protests have galvanised the electorate and there was a sense on the streets that it is their duty to vote. The young may characterise the six months of anti-Beijing protests but all ages from the youngest eligible to the oldest and infirm took their place in line determined to cast their vote.

The councils may rule on parks and recycling, but this is about much more than that. The voters want to send a message.

One man told me that while his vote could be considered irrelevant in the great scheme of things, in essence, his only chance to express any sort of opinion was priceless. Change could easily come from it, he insisted.

"Rome was not built in a day," he said.

Across the city I heard that sentiment all day.

Of course many here do not agree with the protests and prefer to keep close to mainland China.

But the huge turnout and the massive increase in younger voters registering would suggest that the protest movement is carrying the day.

I travelled to North Point on Hong Kong Island. I've seen plenty of pro-Beijing men abusing and assaulting pro-democracy demonstrators here. This dense residential area is a Beijing and government stronghold, and outsiders and change are not welcomed.

Indeed there has been so much bitterness and violence between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy groups in this district that it seemed inconceivable to me that they could appear on the same street together.

But there they were, side by side, peacefully punting for last-minute voters about 200 metres from the local polling station.

It was lovely to watch. It is called democracy.

Pro-Beijing councillors don't count their votes here, they weigh them.

Well they did, perhaps not now.

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One of their group told me he was very uncertain of victory.

"If I am judged on services in the district it would be fine. But the vote is about what is happening in society and that is difficult," he said.

This may well be a sensible interpretation of events here, but coming from this man while the votes haven't even been counted is simply astounding.

The Hong Kong government is hoping that across the city people will vote against the disruption and violence caused by the protests. They believe this silent majority will support the status quo.

But time and again protest organisers have told me that they really do have the support of the people and they are demanding that the government listens to them.

Jimmy Sham organised some of the biggest peaceful marches here. For his troubles he has been attacked and seriously beaten. He still walks with a stick.

"After this election I really hope that Carrie Lam (Hong Kong chief executive) will actually respect public opinions and cool things down in our nicety rather than using bullets to suppress the voice of this generation," he told me, surrounded by supporters and admirers in Hong Kong's New Territories district.

Next to him four pro-Beijing party members stood nearby with flags and pamphlets, completely ignored.

On paper, even a landslide to the pro-democracy parties would have little immediate effect on political life here.

But it would send a message to the government that six months on, the protest movement remains strong and crucially is still supported by the people of Hong Kong.

It's the most important local election I have covered for certain, but arguably it might be the most important local election ever.