The 2020 Legco elections could and should have gone ahead in September this year. The announcement by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor that she was proposing to postpone them by one year is both a major strategic error and a missed opportunity.
The reasons cited for not going ahead next month all centre around the COVID 19 pandemic. It has been suggested candidates would not be free to campaign widely because of social distancing, that it would be difficult to recruit and train sufficient polling staff, and that conduct of the voting including queueing would present a serious risk of compounding the health crisis.
Certainly the virus needs to be taken very seriously. But the question of whether risks could have been mitigated seems not to have been addressed.
The Hong Kong electorate is pretty sophisticated. It knows what the different political parties stand for. If a candidate claims to be a member of the DAB, FTU, Democratic, Labour, Civic or any other party, voters know what is in the tin. With social media now so pervasive, there is no shortage of ways in which candidates can get their message across. If additional opportunity to campaign is really a government concern – and frankly I doubt it – then perhaps there could be some relaxation of election restrictions.
Mention has been made of the need to brief 30,000 polling supervisors and the difficulty of doing this in a time of social distancing. Really? What happened to the 30,000 who did exactly the same job just 10 months ago in the district council elections? Have they all died or emigrated? Any topping up of knowledge or induction of new recruits can be done by zoom. All such officers have internet access and are computer literate.
Finally there is the voting process itself. Here is just one practical suggestion: spread the voting over four days and each day into two seven-hour sessions (7 am to 2 pm, one hour to clear the queue, then 3 to 10 pm) then allocate time slots by last digit of ID card number. So, first day first session for voters whose ID card numbers end in 1 or 2, second session 3 or 4 and so on until lunchtime on day three. Afternoon of day three and whole of day four for those who missed their slot. In this way social distancing could be maintained in the polling stations and the queues outside. But was any such formula considered or were officials too busy planning to avoid responsibility and devising excuses?
The contrast with our nearest comparator city in the region could not be more stark. Singapore (50,000 infections) could organize a smooth general election, Hong Kong (circa 4,000) could not. If you were sitting in North America or Europe with a business location decision to make, which one would you think was Asia’s World City?
Nor is that the end of it, for Lam’s “decision” is not really a decision at all. Nobody knows for sure when the postponed election can be held. Everyone is praying for early development of an effective vaccine, and there are some encouraging reports of progress. But the road ahead could be very long indeed. There are some viruses the world has known about for decades which are still without a proper treatment. There is a very real possibility we may have to live with this one for many years to come. So the only certain effect of the election announcement is “not this year”.
Which leaves our city with two urgent interim problems which we are not in a position to solve by ourselves because they take us outside the purview of the Basic Law. The first is how to provide for a functioning legitimate legislature until there is an election – whenever that may be. If one mooted solution to that -- to simply extend the existing Legco for an extra year and curtail the next one to three years to restore the cycle – is adopted, then what to do with the four serving members who have been ruled ineligible to stand in the next election. It seems odd to allow them to continue, but even odder to remove members who were legally elected by the people of Hong Kong.
Lam has no solution to either of these problems so she has thrown the ball to the Central People’s Government. As the whole world can see, (though some will misrepresent) this is not a case of Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy but rather of the local administration surrendering control through failure to think things through properly and take decisive action.
The opportunities we have missed are to some extent the obverse of these problems. A decision to go ahead within September despite the difficult circumstances –perhaps with a brief two-week delay as permitted by law in order to make special arrangements – would have demonstrated that the Hong Kong administration was still in charge of local affairs and the Basic Law was still operating smoothly. It would have avoided all the negatives described above.
Some have speculated the delay was to save the DAB and its allies from another drubbing at the polls. But I believe Lam’s own explanation: she said last week she did not want to be blamed if holding the election led to a spike in virus infections.
There are only losers in the present situation. Beijing has been dragged in to sort out matters that could and should have been settled locally. The Hong Kong administration has been shown to be weak and inept. Our citizens have been deprived of their right to vote.
Moreover, whatever the outcome of the election whenever it is held, there is a large proportion of the general public not represented by pro-government parties that the administration needs to engage with. That essential process is urgent and has not gone away. Much better to have started it sooner rather than later.