Are election candidates shunning civil service groups this year because of the service's negative image? Yes, says one civil service union leader. No, says another. A third group says it has told its members to steer clear of political disputes. Whatever the answer, the 170,000-strong establishment remains a rich source of votes - with added uncertainty this year of whether it will punish political parties that supported the pay cuts for civil servants. The president of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, Leung Chau-ting, said parties and candidates used to be keen to secure endorsement from key unions, but none had come forward so far. 'I think the public perception has changed. The image of civil servants is very negative these days. That's why the parties stay away and don't want to lose votes,' Mr Leung said. He was referring to a widespread perception that well-paid civil servants were to blame for the government's budget deficits over the past few years. Felix Cheung Kwok-biu, chairman of the Hong Kong Civil Servants General Union, disagreed that parties were steering clear for fear of losing votes. He said the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong had outlined its platform to union members at a recent meeting. It is understood the union was upset because the party backed the legislation to cut pay last year. But Mr Cheung said that was not a major factor and the union had no plan to declare support for a particular party. The Chinese Civil Servants' Association, the largest civil service union, said it had passed a resolution as early as May requiring all office bearers to remain politically neutral. 'The election this year is particularly competitive. We don't want to be dragged into political disputes and undermine the long-standing tradition of neutrality,' its president, Peter Wong Hyo, said. He dismissed suggestions that civil servants and their families would shun parties that backed the pay cut. 'The civil service comprises people coming from different walks of life. It's hard to generalise on how they would vote,' he said. The Civil Service Bureau said it issued a circular last month reminding all staff of the need to uphold political neutrality.