Govt said to be open to delaying or cancelling DC election

October 03, 2019 14:16
With anti-government protests increasingly taking a violent turn, Hong Kong authorities have faced calls to reexamine the district council election plans. Photo: HKEJ

In early September, there was some chatter within the political circles that the government could postpone, or even cancel, the upcoming District Council election due to the social unrest in the city.

Amid such talk, some government figures and members of the pro-establishment camp said they believe the chances of the DC race, which had been scheduled for Nov. 24, getting postponed or cancelled were not high, as any move to abandon the polls could face a lot of legal and political hurdles.

But now, in the wake of the massive and serious clashes across the city on Oct. 1 -- which marked China's National Day -- and the escalated tensions after a police officer used a live round on an 18-year-old protester on that day, the mood appears to have changed drastically.

The administration’s attitude towards postponing or canceling the DC election has changed from “an extremely slight chance” to “being open to the idea”, according to a source within the government.

The government figure said he fears cancelling the DC election will provoke an even bigger social backlash, and that such move might not help in de-escalating the violent protests.

If the DC race takes place as scheduled, the pro-establishment camp could lose over half of the total seats on the local body councils, according to the source.

Worse still, the loss of the seats will cost the pro-establishment camp 117 votes in the chief executive election committee in 2022, thereby giving the pro-democracy camp a much bigger say in the election to choose Hong Kong's next top leader, the person added.

Besides, even if the pan-dems do win by a landslide, it doesn’t necessarily mean the radical faction of the protesters will halt its violent resistance anytime soon, the source said, pointing out that the entire anti-extradition movement has remained “leaderless” so far.

If the government presses ahead with the Nov. 24 election according to schedule, it might end up suffering a catastrophic defeat “both on the streets and in the District Councils”, the person warned.

According to the source, it is impossible that the administration will announce the cancellation of the DC election shortly.

Instead, authorities will continue to keep a close eye on the situation over the next half a month, including whether violent protesters will storm the Legislative Council complex again when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor delivers her Policy Address in mid-October.

The government source believes the arson, destruction of MTR stations and activities such as road-blocking won't stop, and that they may actually increase in both the degree and frequency.

Given the potential situation and growing calls among society for cancelling the DC race, the government might be left with no option but to make a “historic decision” of shelving the DC election, he said.

Some in the political circles believe the biggest hurdle in calling a halt of the DC election would be the likely legal challenges.

Section 38(2) of the District Councils Ordinance says the "Chief Executive may, by order, direct the adjournment of the polling or counting of votes in respect of an ordinary election if, during the polling or counting of votes in respect of the election, the Chief Executive is of the opinion that the polling or counting of votes is likely to be or is being obstructed, disrupted, undermined or seriously affected by riot or open violence or any danger to public health or safety.”

Nonetheless, section 38(4) also says that if "an ordinary election, or the polling or counting of votes at an ordinary election, is directed to be postponed or adjourned under this section, the Chief Executive must, by notice published in the Gazette, specify a date for the holding of an election, or a poll or the counting of votes, in place of the postponed election or the adjourned polling or counting. That date must not be later than 14 days after the date on which the election, poll or count would have taken place but for the direction.”

Therefore, if Lam is really determined to cancel the election once and for all, the only constitutional way for her to do that is by invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, under which the Chief Executive in Council can bypass Legco and issue orders to call off the DC election.

The problem is, if the chief executive really does that, there is a strong likelihood that she will face judicial review lawsuits filed by all sides, thereby triggering another long-drawn-out legal battle.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 2

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.