HONG KONG, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of voters thronged polling stations across Hong Kong on Sunday for district polls seen as a key barometer of support for the city's embattled leader Carrie Lam, who has grappled with nearly six months of often violent protests.
Voter turnout in the first three hours was nearly three times that for the previous election four years ago, government data showed, amid concerns voting could be halted if violence erupts later in the day.
Reuters witnesses said there was only a small police presence as voting began at 7:30 a.m. (2330 GMT), in contrast to reports that riot police planned to guard all polling stations and almost the entire force of 31,000 would be on duty.
"Some people are afraid the elections will be stopped by unpredictable reasons maybe some protests," said Kevin Lai, a 45-year-old IT worker, adding that he had come early to vote for fear of any disruptions later.
Behind him, hundreds of voters queued around a block in the neighborhood of housing estates surrounding the Wong Tai Sin government primary school.
A record 1,104 candidates are vying for 452 seats and a record 4.1 million Hong Kong people have enrolled to vote for district councilors who control some spending and decide neighborhood issues, from recycling to transport and public health.
If the pro-democracy campaigners gain control, they could secure six seats on Hong Kong's Legislative Council, or parliament, and 117 seats on the 1,200-member panel that selects its chief executive.
Beijing-backed Lam cast her ballot in front of television cameras and pledged that her government, widely seen as out of touch with the population, would listen "more intensively" to the views of district council members.
She also expressed hope that a rare lull in violence over the past few days would persist.
"I hope this kind of stability and calm is not only for today's election, but to show that everyone does not want Hong Kong to fall into a chaotic situation again, hoping to get out of this dilemma, and let us have a fresh start," Lam said.
Nearly six months of often violent anti-government protests have rocked the Asian financial hub, at times forcing the closure of government, businesses and schools in its deepest political crisis in decades.
The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy.
The unrest now poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
UNIVERSITY SIEGE STAGGERS ON
A stand-off at Polytechnic University entered its seventh day on Sunday, with the campus surrounded by police as some protesters hid out on the sprawling grounds roamed by first aid workers.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are also responding to excessive use of force by police.
China says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city's police deny accusations of brutality and say they have shown restraint.
Brutal attacks on election candidates have thrust Hong Kong's lowest-tier government onto the international stage as the government struggles to tame the protests.
By 8:00 a.m., a queue of more than 200 people snaked around a city block at polling station at the Buddhist Wing Yan School in Yuen Long, a rural district near the Chinese border.
Bank dealing manager Wong, 32, joined its tail, saying he did not care about waiting to vote.
"I'm so proud to see so many people out here so early," he added. "I hate the government so much. July 21 is four months ago, but there is so much anger here."
He was referring to an attack by suspected triad gangsters on anti-government protesters and commuters at the nearby Yuen Long railway station.
Riot police, who have faced a barrage of verbal abuse on the streets of Yuen Long and across Hong Kong in recent months, had a small presence near polling stations on Sunday, but voters ignored them as they walked past queues in small groups.
Some of the seats that were once uncontested, and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates, are now being fought by young pro-democracy activists.
However, authorities barred one of the most prominent, Joshua Wong, from running. On Sunday, he urged people to vote to show "our discontent with Beijing."
Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu, who had part of his ear bitten off in an attack at a shopping mall this month, was spotted entering a polling station in his district on Hong Kong island. (Reporting by Greg Torode, Sharon Tam, Sarah Wu, Scott Murdoch, Poppy McPherson, Clare Jim, Joyce Zhou, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Athit Perawongmetha and Aleksander Solum; Writing by Jamie Freed and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)