HONG KONG – Pro-democracy camp supporters in Hong Kong could boycott Legislative Council (LegCo) elections scheduled for December in rebellion against Beijing’s implementation of tough new political screenings for potential candidates, politicians and academics said.
On Tuesday, China’s National People’s Congress’ standing committee approved amendments to Annexes 1 and 2 of the Basic Law to change Hong Kong’s electoral system.
Under the new system, the LegCo will be expanded from its present 70 members to 90, with 40 of those seats to be selected by the Election Committee, 30 reserved for functional constituency candidates and only 20 for election by the people.
As there will be two seats in each of Hong Kong’s 10 districts in the general election, the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps are expected to equally share the 20 seats. With a few additional seats from the functional constituencies, democrats are expected to control only about 15 seats in an expanded 90-seat LegCo, according to political analysts.
Yet it’s still unclear under the new electoral rules how many democrats will even be allowed to run for the LegCo, Ma Ngok, an associate professor at the Government and Public Administration Department at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a RTHK news program on Wednesday.
He suggested some democrats will refrain from running as they could be accused at any time of violating Beijing’s vague and broad National Security Law. It’s also unclear what political stance will be acceptable to pass Beijing’s candidate screenings and at the same time win the support of voters, Ma said.
With a likely limited choice of candidates, democratic-leaning voters will have less interest in the LegCo elections than they had in the 2019 District Council elections, Ma opined. With a historic low percentage of LegCo lawmakers elected by ordinary voters, public opinion would not be as important a consideration when the government formulates policies, he added.
Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party, a moderate pro-democracy political party, said he had not yet decided about whether his party would contest the LegCo elections, but some members who had previously shown interest were deterred by the tough nomination procedures announced by Beijing on Tuesday.
Lo said it would be very difficult for potential democratic candidates to secure the required nominations from at least two people in each of the five sectors in the Election Committee, particularly the fifth sector, which was tightly controlled by Beijing. He said it was “ridiculous” that national security police would have a say in deciding who could become election candidates.
At 2019 District Council elections, 2.94 million people cast votes, resulting in a record-high voter turnout of 71.23%. Of those, 1.69 million, or 57.44%, voted for the pro-democracy camp while 1.22 million, or 41.32%, supported pro-establishment candidates, a landslide result that gave democrats 86% of District Council seats.
In primary elections held last July, the pro-democracy camp leveraged that voter feedback to select their most popular candidates for the LegCo elections, which were then postponed by the government for Covid-19 public health reasons.
Then in February this year, 55 people who joined or organized the primaries were arrested by police for alleged subversion. Most of the arrested were still in custody in early March. That’s sparked some columnists and commentators to call on democratic-leaning voters to boycott the elections.
Ngan Shun-kau, a Hong Kong-based political commentator, wrote in a recent article that democrats would become “political vases” in the LegCo and lack the power and numbers to challenge any decisions made by the government.
He wrote that Beijing longed to see a fight within the pro-democracy camp ahead of the elections and that an extremely low voter turnout caused by a democratic boycott would foil Beijing’s designs. Veteran political journalist Ching Cheong holds a similar view, claiming in a recent column that the LegCo had already become a rubber stamp under Beijing’s control.
To counter those voices, some pro-establishment politicians have recently sought to persuade moderate democrats to contest and not boycott the election. Tik Chi-yuen, chairman and founder of the Third Side and a former Democratic Party member, said democrats should not boycott the LegCo elections as a dozen seats in the 90-seat chamber would still be influential.
Ronny Tong, an Executive Council member and a former Civil Party member, said he believed that the Democratic Party would be able to join the elections and form a so-called “loyal opposition” camp as it had previously shown its willingness to communicate with Beijing under the “one country, two systems” principle.
Some pro-Beijing newspapers suggested former lawmakers Fred Li Wah-ming, Frederick Fung Kin-kee and Nelson Wong Sing-chi should join the elections as they were seen as “moderate and rational.” Li told media earlier this month that he would definitely not join the LegCo elections and said the Democratic Party should skip it as well.
Wong said he had given up politics to become a social worker, and that it would be meaningless to run for election if lawmakers were forced to choose between following Beijing’s orders or going to jail.
Fung has so far not stated his plans, but he has been critical of the pro-democracy camp and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on YouTube for the last six months.