Hong Kong voters looking forward to the Legco elections scheduled for early September have three questions to ask themselves: is it worth voting for the opposition; is it worth voting for pro-government candidates; should the elections even take place at all in the middle of a pandemic.
None of these questions gives rise to a straightforward answer.
Many of the opposition candidates seem to be queueing up to disqualify themselves. The rationale is not always visible to the naked eye. One requirement of participation is making a pledge to uphold the Basic Law. Some have already said they will refuse to sign, which rather raises the question of why bother to take part at all. Others are closely tied to the policy position of Demosisto which disbanded recently within hours of the promulgation of the national security legislation. The party built its platform around three propositions, all of which are false. They were: the Basic Law expires in 2047 (it does not, there is no sunset clause); the city’s future after that time is for its seven million residents to decide (not so. Any review of the status of Hong Kong, at any time, will be for all the people of China); we should have a referendum to decide the way forward with independence as one of the options (specifically ruled out by Article One of the Basic Law). So any candidate close to Demosisto would seem to have sailed a long way from the Basic Law and perilously close to the secession clause of the new security law.
Outside these two categories, there are broadly two groups of opposition candidates: those that want to subject the government to close scrutiny (legitimate) and those who subscribe to Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s 35 plus strategy of bringing the government down by opposing everything. It has been argued in academic papers elsewhere that the latter approach is unlawful. Whether or not that is the case, it is certainly pretty stupid. Moderate voters will hope to identify some pragmatists in the first group worth supporting.
What are we to make of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its pro government allies? They are undoubtedly still smarting from the shellacking they received at the district council polls last November. One moment they controlled all 18 councils, the next they were clinging on by their fingernails to just one, the only one with substantial ex officio membership from traditionally conservative rural committees – and hence least democratic -- Islands District. The pro government forces paid a heavy price for sticking with chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s ill-fated attempt to amend the extradition legislation, only to be betrayed at the last minute when she dropped the proposal without consulting them.
At the moment they look like a pretty forlorn bunch, expecting another pasting. Can anything be done to make them seem more attractive to voters? Here’s an idea borrowed from nineteenth century British politics: choose one of your opponents’ most popular polices and adopt it as your own. Then conservative prime minister Robert Peel stole a liberal policy and in the famous words of Benjamin Disraeli “caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes”. Some DAB members have previously indicated disquiet with the circumstances of the Yuen Long incident and suggested a Legco enquiry. This would not quell public anger and the section of the IPCC report dealing with the episode raised many more questions than it answered.
How about resurrecting the idea of a full-scale independent statutory commission of inquiry to cover the whole extradition saga including origin of the political decision, use of force by police and protesters, the Yuen Long incident, possible foreign involvement etc. Such a suggestion could soften the DAB’s image as a mere government lackey, especially if coupled with an indication the door should be opened to further political reform.
What are we to make of the suggestion by the DAB’s Tam Yiu-chung to postpone the elections because of COVID 19? Bearing in mind that he is Hong Kong’s sole representative on the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the administration here will have to treat it seriously. Given the anticipated drubbing for his own party there is clearly a degree of vested interest, and Tam has not helped his cause by saying quarantine arrangements would deter many voters residing in southern China from coming to Hong Kong to go to the polls. There did not seem to be similar concern about eligible potential voters stranded elsewhere.
The main problem with the postponement option is that nobody can give a date for when the virus is likely to be sufficiently under control. One month? Three months? Next year? Any indefinite postponement would in effect mean cancellation which would cause uproar both internationally and locally.
The international reaction is entirely predictable: clearly members of the Five Eyes Trump/Pompeo gang would come out all guns blazing. And locally it would further deepen the drop in morale among many people which has given rise to much disquiet and some silly rumours, for example that SAR passport holders who also have BNO documents would somehow be prevented from leaving Hong Kong. Leaving aside that the Basic Law guarantees the right to travel, the only basis for such an idea seems to be remarks by foreign secretary Dominic Raab that the UK would be powerless to intervene to stop China implementing such a policy. There is no suggestion from Beijing or Hong Kong that such an idea was even contemplated.
Be that as it may, public health is a legitimate concern. The answer surely is to proceed with the elections in September while making arrangements for suitable social distancing to be maintained. This would involve spacing out queues near polling stations, limiting voters entering the venue at any one time and so on. If that requires allowing voting over several days, then do that. Other communities found ways to hold elections during the pandemic, why can’t we?