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Hong Kong government could fuel public distrust with Legislative Council elections delay, warns international group

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 5/8/2020 Natalie Wong natalie.wong@scmp.com
a man standing in front of a store: Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced her decision to postpone the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong during a live broadcast last Friday. Photo: Felix Wong © SCMP Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced her decision to postpone the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong during a live broadcast last Friday. Photo: Felix Wong

An international election monitoring group, whose findings were cited by Hong Kong's leader to justify the postponement of the Legislative Council elections, has warned the government's top-down decision could fuel public distrust.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Swedish intergovernmental organisation, made the comments to the Post days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor cited its work in her decision to delay the polls for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Defending her move last Friday, Lam said the group had "made a comparison" for the administration, which showed that "more countries postponed elections than those held them as scheduled".

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She was referring to the group's project which tracked the pandemic's impact on the elections of 162 countries since February, showing 68 places postponed their polls, while 49 went ahead.

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But in a reply to the Post, Laura Thornton, director of the group's Global Programme, also warned of the political risks associated with Lam's decision.

"Postponement of elections has been viewed by opposition forces as an attempt by the incumbent to extend grip on power," she said. "If the decision is taken unilaterally, without democratic consultation and agreement, it risks public distrust."

Voters and opposition hopefuls were not consulted by the administration, despite pro-establishment heavyweights floating the idea of postponing the vote two weeks ago.

Beijing only sent Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, to meet pro-establishment politicians on the outstanding legal issues after the decision had been made.

Hong Kong election delay throws up raft of legal and political questions

Asked if Hong Kong's one-year delay was justified, Thornton said crucial parameters in evaluating states of emergency included whether the measures were taken democratically and proportionally, and considered if they were needed and legal.

The Venice Commission, an independent advisory body of the Council of Europe, also called on decision makers to involve "all political parties, election management bodies and experts" in the discussion regarding the delays, to ensure respect for human rights.

But in Hong Kong, Lam had admitted neither the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC), nor the government's four medical experts advising on the pandemic, were asked about the postponement beforehand.

Lam had argued it "should be a government decision", adding Mr Justice Barnabas Fung Wah, chairman of the electoral watchdog, had also presented her a list of challenges to implementing social-distancing measures at polling stations.

Beijing fears the electorate more than anything, and prefers the boot, the baton and the bullet over the ballot
Human rights activist Benedict Rogers

But a source familiar with their exchanges accused Lam of "selectively picking views" presented by Fung to support her plan.

The chairman had also listed some special measures which could be imposed if the polls proceeded as normal, the source added, but that was not mentioned by the chief executive.

A spokesman for the EAC refused to comment on its stance on the postponement, or to disclose the full advice Fung gave to the administration.

The postponement was announced last week when the city saw 10 straight days of 100-plus new infections. Daily figures have dropped into double figures since Sunday, raising questions as to whether the delay was necessary.

Lam admitted last Friday she did not involve any of the four government medical experts in the postponement, saying they had "no interest in dealing with politics".

a person in a blue shirt: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that politics had nothing to do with her decision to postpone the Legislative Council elections. Photo: K. Y. Cheng © Provided by South China Morning Post Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that politics had nothing to do with her decision to postpone the Legislative Council elections. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

In justifying the postponement, Lam asked the public to look at Britain, and New South Wales, Australia, both of which have postponed local elections for a year because of Covid-19.

But Benedict Rogers, a UK-based human rights activist who co-founded advocacy group Hong Kong Watch, said the two places could not be compared directly, as Britain had recorded a much higher infection rate than the city.

He added London's decision was made "within the context of a well-established democracy". In March, the UK government said it decided to postpone the vote scheduled in May "following advice from the government's medical experts ... and the advice of those delivering elections".

Extending Legco term would see 'caretaker legislature' in charge

Rogers said Beijing's intention of delaying the polls was because of the prospect of an opposition majority in the Legislative Council for the first time since the handover in 1997.

"Beijing fears the electorate more than anything, and prefers the boot, the baton and the bullet over the ballot," he told the Post.

A spokesman for the Chief Executive Office said the decision to postpone the polls was to protect public health and the voting rights of all registered voters. "It is a difficult but necessary decision in view of the severe epidemic situation," it said.

Lam earlier criticised foreign countries who questioned her decision for "not having an accurate understanding of the "one country, two systems" policy, while adding the government had the ability to deal with any potential backlash to the delay, including street protests.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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