Delay buys time as pandemic meddles

Editorial | Mary Ma 29 Jul 2020

The Legislative Council election will most likely be postponed - and not just for 14 days.

This is despite the fact that, according to the law, the election cannot be put off for more than 14 days.

Although executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah said his boss Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor could recycle the deferral endlessly, his suggestion was more jokey than practical.

It remains to be seen how the administration is going to overcome the limit. But I have no doubt that, given the political will, Lam's advisers will be able to look up some little-known clauses in the city's ancient law books for a semblance of legal backing.

It would be the first time in memory for a major local election to be held back.

Former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing was hardly the first person to suggest postponing the election - which is still scheduled for September 6 - but he was the first pro-Beijing heavyweight to propose putting off the vote for a year. And the administration obviously sees merit in his advice.

From the outset, any decision to this effect is bound to be attributed to the local escalation of the pandemic.

And, honestly, who wouldn't be scared by Centre for Health Protection spokesperson Chuang Shuk-kwan's daily bulletin announcing 100-plus infection cases?

For such a densely populated city, an outbreak of this scale is the worst-case scenario.

So the administration can meticulously justify an election deferral by referring to examples around the world. Although some countries including Singapore conducted polls as planned, others including Britain have postponed theirs.

But, underneath, much more is at stake than the pandemic in Hong Kong's context.

If Tsang's suggestion is accepted, the current Legco will continue to function for another year, depriving the opposition a timely chance to win a few more crucial seats on the back of growing anti-Beijing sentiment.

Privately, pro-democracy moderates forced out in the opposition's recent primary poll will likely breathe a sigh of relief.

Political figures including Democratic Party's Helena Wong Pik-wan and Professional Commons' Charles Mok Nai-kwong will be able to extend their political life for at least a year.

Then, Beijing can avoid a scenario in which it would have to disqualify a large number of radical opposition candidates, thereby denying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo another reason to ramp up sanctions against Hong Kong and the mainland.

By postponing the vote, Beijing can buy more time to tackle problems both in Hong Kong and on the world stage.

The bet is that, if the legislative election is deferred to September 2021, the pro-Beijing camp could score an even bigger victory than during the last election as a number of families and young voters will have moved to Britain by then on BNO visas.

The electoral landscape a year from now could be very different.

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