The district council elections are our city's most democratic, a fact usually not reflected in campaigning or voter turnout. The exception was in 2003, when issues such as Sars, a long economic downturn and unpopular proposals for a national security law galvanised public interest. Electioneering for today's polls has been quiet. The chief executive election in four months and Legislative Council elections later next year loom larger on the political horizon. But there are good reasons, apart from exercising a cherished democratic right, for people to turn out to vote today.
There is a lack of understanding, especially among younger voters, of what district councils do. This can account for people not bothering to vote. But this election is, like all polls in Hong Kong, important. As we move towards the promised dates for universal suffrage, a culture of people participating in governance has to take root and grow. We need to unearth and nurture people with political skills. District councils, being at the grass roots, are the place for that to happen.
Today's elections have sparked unprecedented interest from political parties and activists. More than 830 candidates will contest 336 seats on 18 councils, making contests more competitive and relevant. (The remaining 76 are uncontested.) The increased participation follows the passage last year of electoral reforms.
The reforms give district councillors seats on the expanded 1,200-member Election Committee which will choose the next chief executive, and an extra five seats in Legco - dubbed 'super seats' because they will be returned by a single, city-wide constituency in which most of the 3.55 million registered electors - all those without a ballot in a functional constituency - will be eligible to vote. Today's poll is not only a chance for voters to show that they care about local issues that impact directly on their lives, but to send a strong and clear message about broader concerns ahead of elections for the city's next leader and for a legislature in which councils will have a direct voice.
Some lawmakers are already district councillors, but the councils have hitherto been seen as lacking power and the ability to attract political talent. Indeed, the government cited the need to create opportunities for careers in politics as a reason for appointing political aides to ministers. But the natural path to politics starts at the grass roots. Hopefully today's more competitive contest is a sign that political parties will promote more high-calibre councillors who will not only help advance local issues, but step up pressure on the government to give councils more powers and responsibilities.
As we move towards universal suffrage, we should show that we treasure the voting rights we already have. All politics starts locally, including aspirations for full democracy.