September election? Far from certain

Editorial | Mary Ma 24 Jul 2020

Will the Legislative Council election be postponed?

The question may not have generated much interest in Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's administration before, but this is no longer the case in light of the grave Covid-19 rebound in the SAR over the past week.

Yesterday, another daily record was set after 118 new cases were reported.

The situation is evolving faster than authorities could ever anticipate.

Even before the current outbreaks, pro-Beijing heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung had been calling for the vote to be postponed from September 6 to a future date.

Although it is difficult to know if Tam was speaking for Beijing, it's certain that his proposal did not produce much interest locally. And the administration insisted until recently that it was committed to holding the election in September.

The pandemic was not such a drastic factor at that time. Indeed, it was difficult to link the election with the coronavirus when the city was still moving slowly to ease restrictions.

As expected, political conspiracy theories abounded. A popular one among pro-establishment supporters pointed to the pro-democracy camp's "primary polls," saying they were aimed at screening out moderate pan-democrats to create a radical list only for the government to disqualify.

That's just one of the many theories circulating.

But the only certainty right now is the pandemic's dramatic escalation. If the government had, indeed, been committed to holding the election in September, it apparently no longer feels the same way. Postponing the election is said to have become an option.

Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah appeared self-contradictory when he tried to make a statement covering both ends.

On the one hand, he said he was opposed to delaying the vote. On the other hand, he said the election could be deferred for 14 days without having to amend the law.

Technically, this can be repeated countless times.

In theory, Lam may do so -although, politically, it would be extremely foolish. In reality, though, it would be impractical as each poll delay would involve considerable preparation, and deferring a vote would cost taxpayers and candidates dearly.

There is no standard overseas experience when it comes to postponing voting. France and Poland postponed elections, but resumed them fairly soon despite the ongoing pandemic. Britain amended the law so that local and mayoral elections were deferred to May 2021.

So, while overseas practices provide certain references, everything done in the SAR must be based on the local situation.

While it's my wish to see the election go ahead in September as planned, it is increasingly clear that the government has a contingency plan.

Time is running short for officials to make a decision.

It's probable that answering either "yes" or "no" would be open to judicial challenges but I'm not concerned about this since it's also fair to settle differences in the courts.

Besides, the Legco election is overshadowed by major incidents unfolding around the SAR, with the media giving less than normal coverage to the polls.

Before a decision is made, the pro-establishment camp is not taking any chances. Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, for example, says he's running after declaring otherwise earlier.

Will Leung be the Legco president again? It's probable.

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