LegCo elections: Placing public safety before politics (I)
Updated 12:09, 02-Aug-2020
Grenville Cross
Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Carrie Lam announces the postponement of the 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) election due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, July 31, 2020. /Xinhua

Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Carrie Lam announces the postponement of the 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) election due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, July 31, 2020. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Grenville Cross is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily views of CGTN.

"Every election is determined by the people who show up," said Larry J Sabato, a political scientist. 

In the current pandemic, there are obvious fears that, if electors were to turn out to vote at the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections on September 6, it could pose a serious danger to public health. Large crowds would assemble at polling stations, and then have to wait for what could be several hours in long queues in close proximity to others.

Many voters, moreover, would not wish to risk their health in that way, and would simply not vote, adjudging it too dangerous. Other voters, unable to return to Hong Kong because of border control measures and the quarantine regulations, would feel obliged to stay away, being effectively disenfranchised.

Against this background, the government's course was clear. Like governments around the world, it had no realistic option but to postpone the elections, given the scale of the pandemic. If the daily infection rates had been minimal, the decision would undoubtedly have been very different, but, faced with a third surge of COVID-19, the government's hands were tied.

For 10 straight days, the daily infection rates had exceeded 100, reaching 121 on the announcement day, July 31, and no responsible government could disregard the implications of this.

As the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, explained, "voting, which involves mass gatherings and social contacts, could pose a very serious risk to public health." If she had ignored the warning signs, and thrown social distancing and other preventive measures to the wind, by allowing the elections to proceed as planned, the consequences could have been disastrous, and she could not take such risks. Quite clearly, public safety must always be prioritized in such circumstances.

As it is, Lam delayed taking her decision as long as possible, with barely five weeks to go until the elections. In this regard, her approach mirrored that adopted in many other places, including the United Kingdom.

On March 13, when the British government announced that the local and mayoral elections scheduled to take place in England in seven weeks' time were to be postponed for a year, it explained that it was impractical to hold elections as planned, as they could coincide with the period when the virus was spreading.

The original plan had been to hold elections for 118 English councils, the London Assembly, seven regional mayors, as well as for the Mayor of London, on May 5. The postponement meant that the existing office holders, including London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, all received an extra year in office. Once the announcement was made, the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties both declared it was correct, and they responsibly backed the government’s decision.

Although the Legislative Council Ordinance (Section 44), entitles the government to postpone an election for up to 14 days, if it believes it is likely to be "obstructed, disrupted, undermined or seriously affected by riot or open violence or any danger to public health and safety," the postponement obviously needed to be for a much longer period.

Lam, therefore, invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (Section 2), which confers upon the Chief Executive the power to make regulations if there is "an occasion of emergency or public danger," and if this is "desirable in the public interest." A Regulation was accordingly gazette on July 31, specifying the new election date as September 5, 2021. 

Given the proliferation of the coronavirus, and the real likelihood that Hong Kong will still be in its grip by September 6, Lam's conclusion that she had to act decisively to protect Hong Kong from its impact in the "public interest" was clearly unimpeachable.

Indeed, it is not only the elections which have been affected by the pandemic, but also a series of other events, including the Rugby Sevens. Last month, moreover, the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council (HKTDC) had to postpone the Hong Kong Book Fair 2020, scheduled for July 15, because of health concerns, as well as the sports and leisure expo, the education and careers expo, and the HKTDC entrepreneur day. These postponements were, by and large, accepted by the public, although some people complained that the HKTDC had acted too late, and should have given everyone greater notice of what was intended. All these instances should be able to help us better understand the reasoning behind the Hong Kong government's latest decision to postpone the Legislative Council election.

Proceed to read the second part of the article: HK Legislative Council elections postponement: Public safety first (II)

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)