Since the pro-democrats’ landslide victory in the 2019 district council elections, Hong Kong watchers have been looking toward the 2020 elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo), Hong Kong’s legislature. Could the pro-democrats, for the first time, win a majority in the LegCo?
We won’t be finding out the answer anytime soon. On Friday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the elections – originally scheduled for September 6 — will not happen this year.
Citing the resurgence of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, Lam said that the elections would be postponed until September 5, 2021. “If we continue with our election, millions of voters will be visiting polling stations on the same day. The risk of infection would be very high,” Lam argued.
Hong Kong has to date announced 3,273 cases of COVID-19, with 27 deaths. Case counts began surging in July, going from an average of 5.85 cases per day in June to 66.7 in July – and an average of 125.3 cases per day over the 10 days preceding Lam’s announcement.
Even given the pandemic context, the election delay was an unprecedented announcement. It cannot be divorced from the political context of a new National Security Law, passed by fiat from Beijing, that has already severely restricted political activism in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy groups immediately protested the postponement. Critics pointed out that nearby countries like Singapore and South Korea both recently held successful general elections without registering a spike in COVID-19 cases, proving that it can be done.
A group of 22 lawmakers issued a statement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote. They warned that doing so would “trigger a constitutional crisis in the city.”
“Incumbent pro-democracy legislators, who represent 60 percent of the public’s opinion, collectively oppose the postponement and emphasize the responsibility of the SAR [Special Administrative Region] government to make every effort to arrange adequate anti-epidemic measures to hold elections in September as scheduled,” the group said, according to the Associated Press.
According to the South China Morning Post, Lam said she had the authority to delay the elections under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, and that the National People’s Congress would sort out any remaining legal issues. Incidentally, the NPC’s Standing Committee unexpectedly announced that its next session would take place from August 8 to 11, instead of at the end of August as would have been the norm. The NPC Observer blog noted that the earlier meeting could be related to Lam’s (then rumored, since confirmed) request for the Chinese legislature to weigh in on the legality of extending the current LegCo members’ terms for another year.
Unsurprisingly, Lam’s decision has the full support of the Chinese central government. “It is the responsibility of the Hong Kong SAR government to ensure that the elections for the 7th Legislative Council are held in a safe, orderly, fair and just environment,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday. “We believe that the Hong Kong SAR government will proceed from the current anti-epidemic situation in Hong Kong and handle relevant matters in accordance with the law.”
In her press conference, Lam insisted that “[t]he decision to postpone the 2020 Legislative Council election has nothing to do with politics, has nothing to do with the likely outcome of this round of election. It is purely on the basis of protecting the health and safety of the Hong Kong people and to ensure that elections are held in a fair and open manner.” But given the events preceding the announcement — a full court press designed to intimidate or sideline the pro-democrat camp — many find that hard to believe.
Last year, in the middle of extensive protests, Hong Kong’s pro-democrats notched an impressive victory in local elections, winning control of 17 of the 18 district councils and nearly tripling their number of seats. The landslide raised hopes for a landmark victory – perhaps even an elusive LegCo majority – in September 2020’s upcoming legislative election. Of course, in the intervening period Beijing announced and then passed a National Security Law, outlawing secession, subversion, and foreign interference – all crimes vaguely defined enough that they could be applied to nearly any political opposition group. And so they have been.
First came the warning that the pro-democracy camp’s primary elections could be considered an act of sedition. Erick Tsang, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, warned that the opposition camp’s plan to win a LegCo majority and use that power to vote down the government’s budget could violate the National Security Law’s prohibition on subversion. By extension, anyone taking part in the process to select such candidates could be in violation of the law.
“Those who have organized, planned, or participated in the primary election should be wary and avoid carelessly violating the law,” Tsang said.
Over 600,000 Hong Kongers voted in the primaries anyway.
In a later statement, the government formally warned that it would be disqualifying for any candidate to plan on “indiscriminately voting down any legislative proposals, appointments, funding applications and budgets introduced by the Government after securing a majority in the LegCo so as to force the Government to accede to certain political demands.”
Using legislative power – including the power of the purse — to force compromise is a core staple of democracy in any system with a split executive and legislative branch. Apparently in Hong Kong, however, that would now be illegal.
But the government wasn’t finished yet. The National Security Law was then used to disqualify 12 pro-democracy candidates from running in the first place. The Hong Kong government said the disqualifications were justified because of the candidates’ support for Hong Kong independence, previous calls for Western countries to sanction Hong Kong (which counts as “soliciting intervention by foreign governments” in Hong Kong affairs), or even simply “expressing an objection in principle” to the National Security Law itself. By that measure, nearly every pro-democrat in Hong Kong would be barred from seeking public office.
Four of those disqualified from participating in the next election currently hold seats in the LegCo, raising the question of whether their terms would be extended (along with, presumably, the rest of the Legislative Council) and, if not, what would happen to their seats.
One of the rejected candidates is Joshua Wong, who rose to worldwide fame during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Wong warned on Twitter that the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates “is just the beginning.”
“Beijing is staging multiple acts to prevent the opposition bloc from taking the majority in LegCo. They could disqualify us, arrest us, throw us into jail, or even call off the election and create a puppet parliament elsewhere,” he added, calling Lam’s decision to postpone the poll “the largest election fraud” in Hong Kong’s history.
Notably, even before the National Security Law, Hong Kong was not a full democracy to begin with. The chief executive is elected not by the people but by an Election Committee with just 1,200 members. There is more public participation in the LegCo elections, but even there only half the seats are directly elected. Of the 70 seats, 35 are reserved for functional constituencies, trades and professions such as real estate, tourism, agriculture, and finance. These seats, many of which are voted upon by companies or trade bodies rather than people, are generally more favorable to Beijing. As a result, in the 2016 LegCo elections, pro-democrats won 55 percent of the total popular vote, but pro-Beijing parties ended up with a 40-to-29 seat majority in LegCo (with the final seat held by an independent).
So to recap: The deck in Hong Kong’s LegCo elections is stacked against pro-democrats from the beginning, thanks to an electoral system favoring business blocs over Hong Kongers. Then, in the name of the National Security Law, Beijing and the Hong Kong government moved to disqualify any candidate they disapproved of – in addition to the 12 already banned from seeking office, another 22 are awaiting official approval, and could also be disqualified. Yet even that was not enough. The government has now decided to scrap the polls altogether, with Beijing’s blessing, and will try again in a year – when, presumably, the chilling effect of the National Security Law has bled away more of the heat of public anger.
With additional reporting by Zen Soo of the Associated Press.